DAY 11: January 4th, Vatican City and Rome
Those of us who signed up for the Vatican City tour have to get up early. Because I have my own little cabin the shower is all mine. I call home, and to my delight my Mum is at Grandpa’s, where my aunt and uncle are visiting from Cairns. I get to have a call with four of my family members! I tell them I’m on my way to the Vatican. My staunchly Catholic grandfather tells me to say hi to Pope Francis. If I get the chance, I will.
The weather is so pleasantly mild here in Italy. I don’t even need my thermal leggings. While waiting in line to enter the Vatican, I get to know some of the girls who’ve joined the Winter Spirit tour for the Winter Rhapsody. Jess, Kerrie, Felicia and Rosie are all kinds of awesome.
The Vatican is gigantic, but very secretive and walled off in a lot of ways. It’s the world’s smallest country, with its own embassies, business dealings, post office, you name it. Our guide, Guido, tells us that some areas are so secretive even he’s never been anywhere else except where we’ll be visiting.
There’s many other tours, so each carries a distinct flag. Although I can’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment that we didn’t get the truly badass guide who is literally using a plush Batman toy as his marker. Why didn’t we get that guy?!?
At first, the tour is driving us all crazy. We have to wear earpieces to hear Guido, but for some reason we can’t hear him at all. Therefore, the tour stops so he can change microphones, and finally we can carry on.
The tour takes us through the main attractions of the Vatican, full of statues, paintings and tapestries so delicate you can’t take flash photographs or the colours will fade. Of course, what we really came to see was the Sistine Chapel. Or was that just me? Guido tells us the full history of why Michaelangelo, a sculptor who didn’t care for painting, ended up there. If you don’t know the story, I highly recommend checking it out because Michaelangelo went through absolute agony in the four years he spent painting that damn Chapel, and the least you can do is spend five minutes of your life reading about it.
Photography and cameras of all description are completely banned in the Sistine Chapel. And when I say this is enforced, I am not kidding. Should you so much as pull one out, the guys in black will blow whistles and converge on you like vultures to a corpse. I’m not about to even try that.
All that being said though, no picture could do the beauty of the Sistine Chapel justice. I’d happily stand there for hours gazing up at the masterwork.
The tour ends at the main square, I pick up some holy water for Grandpa and Felicia and Jess ask if I want to get lunch with them. We find a nice restaurant and I finally have my first taste of a real Italian pizza. And this is the moment where pizza is ruined for me forever. It’s that good.
I still can’t get over how crowded Rome is. And this is meant to be the off peak season. I shudder to think of what summer is like.
We meet up with their other travel companions, Rosie and Kerrie. For the rest of the day we explore the Pantheon, the streets, and finally Jess, Felicia and I decide we want to go see the museum of Capuchin monks (and yes, that is where the word cappuccino comes from).
We were told on the tour last night that there were skeletons inside and this was a quirky attraction. I’m not Miss Morbid, but having some bragging rights when I get home sounds good to me.
Oh my, how wrong I am.
I’m all for quirky and a bit of dark humour, but the place is decorated in a fashion that maybe Leatherface would enjoy. And by that I mean there is literally 4000 skeletons, or really, pieces of them, decorating this place. There are literally chandeliers made out of freaking bones, and other skeleton parts lining the walls in patterns and it is BEYOND creepy. Even the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland has more class than this. I hightail it out of there as soon as I can. Sheesh.
Now it’s time for my big test. Can I navigate the Rome Metro and bus all the way back to our campsite? Like the little engine that could, I think I can. And even though I have a bit of trouble going out the right exit at the train station, eventually I’m on the bus and back at the site. A quick stop at the local Coles equivalent store ensures I have snacks for tomorrow’s trip to Venice. And with that, I’m back in my little cabin, ready to have a good night’s sleep.
DAY 12: January 5th, Rome to Venice
Today’s drive has a few differences. For one, a number of people have left and a number have joined us. And we also have a different driver today. Topdeck is really strict on giving the drivers break time. Our driver is also a Venetian native.
Today includes a stop in the city of Verona, the home of Romeo and Juliet. The city has its own Colosseum, and you can’t go to Verona without a visit to Juliet’s Balcony. The statue of Juliet has been rubbed smooth by people touching the supposedly lucky breast. Do they not realise she’s mean to be 13?
In the crowded square beneath the balcony, I find a beautiful embroidery shop and have a new bag label made with my name.
It’s a long day on the coach and we arrive at the hotel on the mainland after dark. We have a hotel upgrade tonight, which is cause for momentary celebration until we realise that a few of the rooms only have double beds (Tori and I realise our room has two single beds pushed together). Also, the WiFi sucks.
On a happier note, we have the option to get our clothes professionally laundered tonight (which I don’t do, since the minimum amount is 15kg and I didn’t even pack that much) and our trips shirts, which we all had a hand in designing, are ready.
Dinner is included tonight, but it’s quite a long walk away. We now know to to add at least twenty minutes to whatever time Morgan says.
DAY 13: January 6th, Venice
As we leave the mainland for the islands of Venice, one thing is clear: your GPS will not save you. Two people move out of Venice every single day and frankly, it’s not hard to figure out why. It’s almost impossible to get around here.
Venice is made of 118 islands, connected by bridges and the only transport is either gondolas, water taxis or your own two feet. Waterlogged doesn’t even begin to cover it. The buildings are all built on wooden foundations, and every year the city sinks more. Eventually it will be totally submerged.
We get the tour, but sadly there’s a mist over Venice so thick you could hammer a nail into it. St Mark’s Square is of course, full of pigeons and then we’re shown a beautiful lace shop. The delightful ladies inside are…well, hilarious. In between explaining traditional Venetian lace, they’re cracking jokes. “Girls, you marry twice. First time for love, second time for life,”
We all adore the beautiful crafts. I decide to get Mum’s gift in here. She asked for something “beautiful”and here we are.
Mum’s always big on finding things to decorate the table with at Christmas time. They have beautiful Christmas table runners, and I know right away it’s meant for her.
After the lace shop, it’s time for the big bucket list item. The gondola ride. We sail through the canals of Venice and I marvel at the buildings, though what will happen when everything is underwater?
Kerrie, Jess, Felicia, Rosie, Lauren, Kate and I wander around for a while before taking the vaporetto to the island of Burano. It takes well over an hour to get there, but it was well worth the trip. Not only is there a leaning tower here, but the island is covered with cute coloured houses that look even more beautiful in the sunset.
It’s getting dark, so we head back towards the mainland for dinner. And this is where I have the absolute worst experience on my trip.
While the seven of us are trying to figure out where to eat, we’re approached by a friendly local woman outside a nice-looking restaurant. It seems reasonably priced, so we go in.
My six companions are all in their later twenties/thirties, while I carry the mixed blessing of a baby face. I look MUCH younger than my 25 years, even without older-looking company. In short, I’m very obviously the youngest one of us seven. Well, the three delightful waiters don’t even hesitate. They take one look at me and the sleazy remarks start. It’s making me uncomfortable, but sadly it’s not an uncommon occurrence for any woman really, so I try to ignore them.
Then things take a turn for the worse. They continue hounding me with suggestive comments. One asks me my name about five times and gets uncomfortably close, like he’s trying to kiss me. By the time they’re adding extras to our order, which we absolutely did NOT ask for, I’m not a happy girl. For example, in Europe, there’s a charge for table water. We ask for two bottles for our table. They bring seven. And it isn’t over yet.
For the rest of the night, those three morons keep on my back. I can feel them undressing me with their eyes and revelling in my awkwardness. I’m about ready to throw my wine on them. By the time the bill comes, they’ve added enough unwanted extras to bring the total to 193 Euros, when it should have been about eighty altogether. Needless to say, they will not be receiving a tip.
I’m feeling completely humiliated. We’ve been scammed, and we all know it’s not worth even trying to argue. We just want to get out ASAP. And even as we’re leaving, they yell a couple more sexist remarks at me. I may not speak Italian, but I know enough to understand what they’re saying. It’s so degrading.
When we get back to the hotel, I go up to my room and immediately burst into tears. I feel so violated, angry and demeaned. How could I have fallen for such antics? I did all the research on European scams before I came.
Unable to settle down on my own, I call home and talk to my family about what happened. They point out that I’ve gone almost two weeks without getting scammed. These guys were professionals. They knew what they were doing. My mother describes them as “grubs”.
It’s true. There really wasn’t a lot of ways to prevent this. And the fault lies with those creeps, not me.
Tomorrow, we leave Venice. And I am absolutely fine with this.