Ciao, tutti! (Hello, everyone!) Yep, I’m using Italian again, because I visited Rome the weekend of Palm Sunday to start of my spring break from the Fundación Ortega-Marañon y Gasset, the school through which I am studying here in Toledo, Spain for the spring semester. I could also say “Hola a tothom!” which means the same thing in Catalan; I visited the capital of the Autonomous Community of Catalonia, Barcelona, on Friday before going to Rome.
The week before my travels commenced was the last week of regular classes at the Fund. After Semana Santa and the Easter holiday, we would have a week of final exams and then be done academically with our term! Spring break usually falls earlier in the year, giving an uninterrupted transition into finals week, but since Semana Santa is the Fund’s spring break and Semana Santa falls so late this year, the term ended up this way.
I had gotten back to Toledo from Santiago de Compostela on Sunday night, so I had all of Monday before 4 p.m. to work on homework and on my travel plans for the week after my program ended on Friday, 28 April. For my internship at the library, I brought along some candies and nuts for a little fiesta with the groups for the evening. It was my last Monday there, so in addition to the usual presentation we enjoyed some snacks and I received feedback from the group members. Overall, they liked what I had talked about and how I had presented it, so I was quite happy and relieved! My presentation for the week was probably one of my favorites, since it was all about the history of the English language and how it contributed to the language’s weirdness and difficulty for non-native (and even native) speakers. This video was quite helpful; check it (and others from Ted-Ed) out if you’re interested in the subject!
During the grupo juvenil (youth group for people from 14 to 25 years old), I also got a visit from Miguel, one of the directors of the Fund who coordinates the internship program, and three people from the University of Minnesota, the university through which St. Norbert College runs its program in Toledo. They asked the group members and me how the sessions had been going and then chatted generally with us. It was nice to see them and switch between English and Spanish with relative ease.
Tuesday went well regarding both my class (Politics and Society of Latin America) and my internship. We had our final lesson and went over what the final exam would contain in the class, and I gave the English history presentation for the groups at the library that evening.
Wednesday and Thursday went similarly well. Everyone at the Fund was having more difficulty concentrating on classes and final-exam preparation because of the travels they had planned for the coming week. I felt a mix of both excitement and anxiety: I was really looking forward to the trips I had planned for Barcelona, Rome, and Seville, but I also worried about missing any of the buses or flights I had booked or getting lost in these cities, especially as I would be traveling alone. Talking to other students at the Fund, I discovered that I wasn’t alone in having this mix of emotions; it was a source of reassurance as I prepared to leave Thursday night.
On Thursday, I skipped the afternoon session of my Spanish history course to relax a bit and have ample time before my bus from Toledo to Madrid at 8 p.m. (This was the second time I skipped class. What a rebel I’ve become in Spain, right? 😆) Some of my friends who were going to Morocco for the weekend were taking the same bus, so I got to talk with them on the ride to Madrid and for part of my metro trip to the Plaza de América, from which my bus to Barcelona would be leaving. There were two buses leaving for Barcelona, leading to a bit of confusion not only on my part but on that of everyone. Thankfully, everyone (I think) got on the correct bus and headed for Barcelona.
The bus ride to Barcelona was about seven hours. I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep on the way but felt rested enough, if a bit chilly, when we arrived at Barcelona Nord station around 6:30 a.m. Friday morning. From there, it was basically a straight shot to Park Güell, the spectacular area of sculptures and natural features designed by Antoni Gaudí, the famous architect (proposed for beatification, no less!) who is perhaps better known for designing La Sagrada Familia cathedral. This imposing and fantastical church, begun in 1882, is still in the process of construction, with a completion date set for 2026, the hundred-year anniversary of Gaudí’s death. The cathedral was actually on the way to Park Güell, so I took ten minutes to walk around it, admire its beauty, and – being me – taking a lot of photographs. I was thankful to at least have seen the exterior of this church during my time in Europe, and I hope to return some day to step inside it.
Park Güell is pretty impressive itself. Much of it is free and open to the public, but the area with the highest concentration of buildings by Gaudí requires a ticket. I had gotten one of these tickets and headed into the Monumental Zone around 8:20 a.m. The structures were fascinating, to say the least, curving and seeming to flow into and out of the vegetation surrounding it. You can see this amazing park for yourself below!
From Park Güell, I took myself (and my suitcase – thankfully it has wheels and I had packed pretty light) to La Plaça de Catalunya, or the Plaza of Catalonia, the main plaza in Barcelona. On the way, I got to see more of the city and the touches of Surrealist architecture, some of it from Gaudí himself, throughout it.
Once in the plaza, I got a ticket for a shuttle to Barcelona’s airport, boarded said shuttle, and arrived and got through security in plenty of time for my flight to Rome. I had only spent about four hours in the city, but I was happy with what I had gotten to see in that time. If (I hope firmly “when”) I return to Europe, I would greatly enjoy exploring this unique and vibrant city more.
My flight through Ryanair to Rome left a bit late (by this point I expected it) but went well, and I arrived at Fiumicino Airport around 4 p.m. Both of the airports that serve the Eternal City, Fiumicino and Ciampino, are over 10 kilometers outside of the city itself, meaning you have to drive or take some form of transportation if you want to get to Rome proper. I took a train to the station nearest the Airbnb where I was staying for the weekend and there met both my friend Patrick, an SNC student studying in Rome for the semester, and Carlotta, the owner of the room I was renting. I hadn´t seen Patrick since out trip to Florence, so it was great to meet with him again. I was glad to meet Carlotta, too; she was very friendly and had lots of papers with tips and suggestions for visitors to Rome.
After putting my things in my room, Patrick and I took the metro to the center of Rome, or at least near it. With the montón (huge amount; heap) of ancient ruins and artifacts in the ground underneath this area of Rome, it´s pretty much impossible to have a metro line running through it. Thus, the city´s three metro lines (a suprisingly small number to me for the city’s population of over 2.6 million) skirt around the center. This wasn’t much of a problem for me, though, since it meant that I got to walk past and take photos of so many structures from the Roman Empire through the Renaissance.
Our first actual stop was the Church of Saint Peter in Chains (San Pietro in Vincoli), where the chains used to bind Peter in Jerusalem are kept in a reliquary underneath the main altar. The church is also famous for the statue of Moses created by Michelangelo; its part of the tomb of Pope Julius II. This church, along with all of the churches I saw in Rome, was quite different from the churches I see on the regular in Toledo and most of Spain. Instead of a soaring Gothic interior with stained-glass windows or a Mudéjar space with horseshoe arches and gypsum-carvings, I encountered a long and open hall with small chapels at the side. It reminded me much of a Roman temple or an auditorium, and I suppose the former makes a lot of sense for Rome given its history.
Patrick had to print off his ticket for our tour of the Vatican the next day, so I walked through the area. I ended up seeing the Basilica of Saint Mary Major (Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore), the largest church dedicated to Mary in Rome (thus ¨Major¨); the Church of Saint Mary of the Mountain (Maria dei Monte); the Colosseum; the Arch of Constantine; the Roman Forum; the Forums of Nerva, Augustine, Trajan, and Caesar; the Convent of Saint Bonaventure; and the Palatine Hill. Granted, I did not get to go into the Colosseum or Saint Mary Major, but I was elated enough just to see them in person and not in a photograph online.
I met Patrick by the massive monument to Victor Emmanuel II, or the Altare della Patria. Victor Immanuel (r. 1861-1878) was the first king of a united Italy; in the centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire the peninsula had consisted of a collection of different kingdoms and republics, including the Papal States. The monument, in addition to being huge (and, in fact, the largest monument in Rome), is also built of a brilliant white marble and required the destruction of a large part of the Capitoline Hill. Thus, according to Patrick, many Romans consider it to be a bother and a sore thumb in the city. I have to admit that it stuck out from the rest of the cityscape, but it was certainly impresionante (impressive).
Patrick showed me some of the other well-known monuments in Rome, including St. Mark’s Church (commissioned by a Venetian since he missed his home city and its patron St. Mark; the Pantheon, the former central temple of Rome that is now a Catholic church; and the Trevi Fountain, where I did the usual tourist ting and flipped a coin over my left shoulder into the waters. Apparently, around 30,000 euros are thrown into the Trevi every day, with the money used to subsidize a supermarket for people in need in the city. Not a bad consequence of tourism for once, right?
Patrick also took me to the Chiesa della Santissima Trinita’ degli Spagnoli, an 18th-century church built for the Trinitarian Order and funded by the archbishop of Lima, Peru at the time (resulting in the “Spagnoli,” “Spaniards,” at the end of the name. It offered an amazing view of the city, situated as it was at the top of a hill.
After digging into a late dinner and, of course, some gelato, I traveled back to my room from Carlota to get at least some sleep before my 8 a.m. tour of the Vatican Museums, the Vatican Gardens, and Castel Gandolfo the next day.
I was extremely excited to see the Vatican and its immense museum collections: the tour was definitely a dream come true! For two hours, I got to see room after room of art, architecture, and history, including the famous Sistine Chapel! (The picture is not mine; no photos allowed in the chapel!)
My favorite room, however, was probably the Gallery of Maps, an absolutely stunning hall with, you guessed it, maps of various regions of Italy along its walls. For a cartography-lover like me, this room was heavenly.
Around 11 a.m., Patrick and I went with the rest of our tour group through the gardens of the Vatican. Despite being the smallest nation in the world in both size (44 hectares, or about 100 acres) and population (around 1000 people officially live there), the Vatican City was bigger than I imagined it to be. The gardens take up about 23 hectares, or just over half of the Vatican City’s territory. They originated in the 13th century and include sections from that era as well as the Renaissance and Baroque periods of history.
The Vatican Gardens also house the headquarters of Radio Vatican, the official radio station of the city-state that broadcasts in over 40 languages and over 60 countries. It was set up by Guglielmo Marconi, one of the pioneers in radio technology, and is run by the Jesuit Order.
Our tour of the gardens was rapid but enjoyable. It ended at the Vatican City’s train station, now basically only used for freight cars and special occasions or visits. However, electric trains also run regularly from here for tourists like Patrick and me on the “Vatican by Train” day tour. We boarded our train and headed out of the Vatican City, through Rome, and 25 kilometers southeast to Castel Gandolfo, a tourist hotspot with about 8,500 permanent residents in the Alban Hills on the edge of the beautiful Lake Albano. One of the reasons for the heavy tourism, especially in the summer, is the town’s climate, breezier and cooler than sites at lower altitudes like Rome.
Another reason is that the Apostolic Palace of Castel Gandolfo, the former summer residence and retreat of the pope (again, it’s cooler there than Rome) since the seventeenth century. I write “former” because Pope Francis decided to not use the palace and surrounding gardens as a residence and the Vatican, in 2016, opened up the entire complex to the public as a museum. Am I ever glad he did!
The villas surrounding Castel Gandolfo that used to be owned by the pope take up 55 hectares, making them larger than the Vatican City itself. About 30 of these hectares are the Barberini Gardens, a collection of gardens of various styles, while the other 25 are farms, complete with orchards, cows, chickens, and your other typical farmyard animals. We rode in a series of carriages driven by a small electric vehicle for our tour of the villas and ended up at the entrance to the Apostolic Palace and the small village that surrounds it.
After looking at Lake Albano, walking through the very touristy but still lovely village, and having some pizza for lunch, Patrick and I went to the Apostolic Palace and bought tickets to tour it. (Note on the pizza: apparently “Wurst” [“sausage,” in German] style pizza in Italy [and Spain, I later found out] means a regular cheese pizza covered in hot dog slices. It’s basically the ideal lunch of the stereotypical American child!)
Castel Gandolfo was certainly impressive, but it was also quite tranquil. I can understand why past pontiffs enjoyed living there during the summers. The museum that the building now houses shows portraits and possessions of the popes who have lived in it, as well as Pope Francis. The tour then goes up another level and through a series of rooms preserved in the state of their original function, such as the throne room, the papal bedroom, and the library. Fun fact: the Apostolic Palace housed Jewish refugees during World War II and also served as a refuge from Allied bombing raids of Italy for the townspeople. As a result, over 40 babies have been born in the bedroom of the palace!
After we finished our tour of the palace, Patrick and I walked to the buses that would take us to the Castel Gandolfo train station and back to Rome. The schedule had actually not mentioned that the buses would be there at all, let alone the time we should show up for them. Thankfully, Patrick and I met a very friendly married couple from the United States who relayed the information to us after hearing it from one of the tour operators. The wife became our self-declared “mom” for the day, and both she and her husband acted with great warmth toward us throughout the day. If either of you are reading this, thank you for your friendship!
Everyone on the tour had taken a coach bus on the way up to Castel Gandolfo. On the way down, we ended up taking two public buses. I’m not sure if this is a regular thing on the Vatican tour of Castel Gandolfo: it worked out well enough, but we were pretty tightly squeezed on the return voyage. For those of you looking at doing this tour of the Vatican City, note this!
Once at the train station, we confidently boarded the train back to Rome…until we figured out that it wasn’t actually said train! It was continuing on to the town beyond Castel Gondolfo before returning on the route to Rome. We (along with a lot of other passengers) quickly hopped off and, about ten minutes later, reboarded the train when it came back in the opposite direction. The train voyages to and from the town took about 40 minutes each, providing great opportunities for reflection, prayer, and sleep!
From our stop, Patrick led me to St. Peter’s Square before St. Peter’s Basilica. You can probably imagine how elated I was to be standing in the physical center of the Catholic Church! It was a lovely evening, and the colonnades, designed to embrace visitors as the arms of the Maternal Church, awed me along with the facade of St. Peter’s itself.
After gazing in wonder at the sqare for a while, I went with Patrick from the Vatican City to the nearby rione (neighborhood) of Trastevere, where the university where he is studying, John Cabot University, is located. There were a lot of restaurants and gelateria in the area. Thankfully, Patrick pointed out his favorite among the latter to me, so I knew which one to pick! Patrick went on to visit with some family members, while I trekked up the Janiculum, the so-called “Eight Hill” of Rome, known as the City of Seven Hills. The Janiculum isn’t part of the famous Seven Hills because it lies across the Tiber River from the ancient section of the city, but, as the second-highest of the more-than-seven hills of Rome, it offers a spectacular view of the city. I found this out for myself once I reached the top!
There is also an impressive fountain at the top of Janiculum, so I took some time looking at that before heading down the hill, stopping outside Spain’s embassy on the way. I decided to walk back to my room, so I had the opportunity to see more churches (some preparing for Palm Sunday vigil Masses), cross the Tiber River, walk past the Roman Forum and the Colosseum again, and take in Rome by night. It was a relaxing way to end my first full day in Rome, as well as a great form of exercise!
On Sunday morning, I headed out from Carlotta’s to the Vatican, this time for the Papal Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square at 9:30 a.m. I was extremely excited to attend a papal Mass – and one on such an important feast day in the liturgical year, no less! Even the crowd of hundreds, and then thousands, of people waiting to get to security, go through it, and then finally enter the square could not dampen my mood, especially as the majority were, like me, in an anticipatory and joyful mood.
I had left for the Mass just before 7:30. I was supposed to meet Patrick, but the size of the crowd and its division into different sections of St. Peter’s Square made that impossible in the end. I still managed to pick up a branch (of an olive tree, not a palm; olives are used for Palm Sunday in Italy, Spain, and other Mediterranean areas) and find a pretty good seat with plenty of time to spare before the service began.
During the Mass, I – and a whole lot of other people – took a lot of videos and photographs. It was such an incredible event, and I wanted to record as much of it as I could to recall it in later years. As a result, participation in the Mass itself was not always at the top of my mind, but I tried to limit my recording to short blips or processions past my seat. Pope Francis even passed by the section I was in twice, and I got pretty good photos of him! I was and still am incredibly grateful and amazed that I was in Rome at a papal Mass on Palm Sunday. It was truly a gift from God.
After Mass, I had a quick lunch of a panini and with it covered that last of the three required p’s of any visit to Italy: pizza, pasta, and paninis! I then went back to my Airbnb, collected my things, said goodbye to Carlotta, and made my way to Rome’s Ciampino Airport. This airport, like Fiumicino, is outside the actual city by over 10 kilometers, and is the older of the two. In fact, with an opening date of 1916, Ciampino is one of the oldest airports in the world still in operation. It doesn’t handle as many flights as Fiumicino, as I quickly found out on arriving there. The whole building had a rather sleepy and relaxed air, which was quite refreshing – if a bit odd – for an airport.
My flight to Madrid through RyanAir showed up to and left from Ciampino late (you probably saw that one coming by now), but I had tons of time before my bus from Madrid to Seville left at midnight. I arrived at Barajas – Suárez Airport safely and hopped on a Cercanías train to Avenida de América, the bus/metro/train station from which I would be leaving that night. The rest of my Sunday night was just me waiting for my bus to Seville, so I won’t bore you with those details.
I was told that the second half of my semester in Toledo would go by even more quickly than the first, but I didn’t think it true until this week. I could not (and still cannot!) believe how rapidly my time abroad dwindled; I’ll take it as a sign that I’m having a good time and try to make the most of what is left. My spring break and Holy Week started off on a great note, and the next week would continue that trend. Thanks for reading this far, and stay tuned for my post on the following week!