Short Version: The warmest welcome we've received so far this trip is certainly this one in Rome. After host-related entertainment, we set out to explore the Vatican Museum which has a great collection but way too many gift shops. Now scroll through and look at the pretty photos. :)
Long Version: It took us a little while to find our hotel in Rome. We had the address and were in approximately the right location but we couldn't find the correct street number nor could we find a sign anywhere. It turns out that that's because our hotel is not labelled. We've looked since and still can't find anything.
Luckily, the hotel owner had a friend (assistant?) who came out looking for us since he knew approximately when we were supposed to arrive. After showing us to our room, this super friendly Romanian guy asked if we were hungry, started to tell us where some food options were, and then said, "It's easier if I just show you." So he proceeded to lead us around to a bunch of pizza places until we found one that was open. We enjoyed sampling some delicious Roman pizza:
Not the greatest photo, but I love that you can just pop into a pizza shop, get a slice or two of several different kinds of pizza, and be on your merry way - all for a pretty affordable price.
The next day started off with a traditional minimalist Italian breakfast with the hotel owner. Over cappuccinos and jam croissants at the espresso bar around the corner, he regaled us with information about Rome and drew all over a map of the city, making suggestions for itineraries, food, and more. Paul had read that Wednesday mornings were a good day to go to the Vatican museum since many people are over at St. Peter's to see the Pope. This turned out to be an excellent tip - we waited in line for less than five minutes.
The Vatican Museum is overwhelming and has an extremely confusing layout. To make matters worse, the map they give you is crap. I'm willing to admit that my reading of maps isn't always the best, but when Paul has problems, you know it's not good.
However, we managed. I mailed some postcards from the Vatican (most expensive postcard stamps ever!):
We saw Hercules many times over (clearly, he was a popular figure to sculpt):
Paul and I both thought The River Nile was quite neat:
And, of course, the fabulous Laocoon, which I loved seeing on my first trip to Rome in high school and was eager to see again. Such an expressive sculpture!
Then there's the magnificent School of Athens:
I always forget how large these things are - the School of Athens takes up a huge wall.
We topped off our visit with the Sistine Chapel, which was also larger than I remembered. My main memory was of the crush of bodies, which held true this time as well, although not quite as bad. The line to get in took forever. Then we were able to stand in a somewhat less crowded space before queuing up in a tightly packed line for ages to get back out. And the guards were worse than your worst librarian - endless loud "shhhhh-ing" to quiet the crowd.
Paul commented that the Sistine Chapel is a horrible fire hazard. If something happened in that room, many of us would not have made it out. There was simply no where to go. There are other doors but Paul was not confident any of the guards could have gotten to them in time to open them for a panicked crowd.
The other nuisance in the Vatican Museum was the ridiculous amount of gift shops. As you stroll through the endless galleries following the signs to the Sistine Chapel, they have many mini gift shops set up along the halls - in extremely inconvenient locations where they take up half the walking space in an already crowded area. And, as you exit the museum itself, you are funneled through the biggest gift shop of all. I expected that last part, but all the small ones spread throughout the inside were excessive.
After the museum, we took a very long walk which included a hill with a pretty good view of part of Rome:
Our hotel folks say Rome really isn't that big of a city. I suppose that's true - as far as the parts that most tourists want to see are concerned. But from up high, it looks enormous.