When I began researching things to do in and around Rome, Bracciano Castle came up as a popular nearby spot to visit. Having toured a “castle” in America, of course, I wanted to compare.
But today’s post is not about Bracciano Castle*. It is about another castle I overlooked in my planning, because once you have one castle on your to do list, isn’t it overkill to add a second?
*Don’t worry, that post is coming.
The answer, friends, is no.
I told you I knew little of Rome before coming for a visit, and as we headed for Castel Sant Angelo from our monument filled morning it was abundantly obvious.
“Castle Sant Angelo is free today, too,” Joel told me and Mallory, “That is, unless you’re tired and want to call it a day.”
It was 6 pm. Thus far, our day had involved church + a hefty lunch of Italian hamburgers* + walking about Palatine and the Roman Forum + standing in line and touring the Colosseum. As luck was having it so far in this trip, it seemed the days which ended up becoming major walking days, my two sneaker options were tucked safely away in the apartment. I looked down at my feet in the supposed-to-be-incredibly-comfy flats I had purchased for this trip. They were holding up, but I knew within a few hours I was going to need freedom from them**.
*Don’t worry, America, we’re doing it right.
**And this was after already changing out of the wedges I had worn to church that morning.
I’m no quitter though, especially not where exploring something new is concerned*.
*If Gram can walk around Paris all day in two-inch heel booties**, then I’m not about to complain.
A short bus ride dropped us right between St. Peter’s Basilica and Sant Angelo.
The plan was to gauge the line and decide if the castle was worth it.
As Mallory and I held our spot, Joel checked the front of line situation. Though it was long, it was narrow. We reasoned it would move quickly, yet as we warmed the same spot for several minutes, we began to reassess our initial opinion.
One thing I had been prepared for in Rome was the unevenness of the streets. Despite this knowledge, it seems I never managed to check my foot placement at the right times. While standing with nothing more to do than staring blankly around the same circle of surroundings, I took a step back, right into the perfect square hole where a piece of stone was missing. The woman in front of us, whose name we learned was Roberta, laughed at my reaction which I assume looked like a mixture of wide-eyed laughter and frightful surprise and then said in Italian, “That’s Rome.”
This seemed the perfect ice breaker for her, because she continued to speak to us, in Italian. She began asking if we had ever been to Castel Sant Angelo before and if we knew about the tour of the Passetto*. When she realized we spoke English, she switched to English, telling us that she had been trying to learn for some time now.
*Also known as Passetto di Borgo, a passage way formerly built for the pope linking the castle to Vatican City. If you are a Dan Brown fan, it played a key role in the book Angels and Demons.
As we approached the entrance, Roberta’s son, Gian Luca, who had been sitting off to the side, and her friend, Francesca, joined the line. I expected our conversation to be finished at this point. But as we entered, instead of taking the free tickets which sat on a table beside a bored staff member, she approached him and asked for six tickets. She looked at us and said, “You want to go, right?” referring to the Passetto tour which she had first talked to us about in our conversation. We nodded, dumbly, because we were all thinking our relationship had ended and now we would go our separate ways.
Little did we know, it was just beginning.
Before I tell anymore of this day, let me say this, the crazy part of all this is we were just about ready to give up on waiting in line before she talked to us.
Roberta became our tour guide, walking us through the entrance of the castle, leading us towards the ‘hot spots’. Once we reached the top, where there was a little rooftop bar, she looked at us and said, “I usually stop here for a little Aperitivo. Is that okay?”
Of course, it was okay. Buy a drink, get free snacks, all while sitting in a castle and staring at the Vatican as the sun set?
From there we did a whirlwind tour of the rest of the castle in order to get to our Passetto tour on time and let me be clear, in case it wasn’t already apparent, we had no clue what we were doing. We followed Roberta the entire time.
Views from the top of Castel Sant Angelo
The doors for the Passetto entrance were locked when we arrived and a small crowd began to form. The staff members inside opened them exactly at our entrance time and scrutinized every single ticket sending the majority of people at the door away. In the end, there were about ten of us and a single tour guide who walked us down the narrow walkway, hiding us from the outside world which we could hear echoing all around. After some time, the walkway opened up above and we could see into Rome.
It was a quite an experience.
When our tour was complete, I again assumed that our time with our new friends must be near its end. We had toured the entire castle with them, shared Aperitivo, taken the Passetto tour, they had to be sick of us by then!
Joel had made what we now realize must be a very American gesture of paying for everyone’s Aperitivo drink*. This, Roberta told us, is unheard of, unacceptable even. If anyone were to pay, she explained, it should be her, being that she was the oldest among us.
*I definitely would have done the same exact thing, in fact, I’m pretty sure I asked him if he was going to. Roberta had been so sweet to us, taking us under her wing, acting as our tour guide, it was the smallest way we could thank her for her kindness.
After we left the castle, we walked back towards home with our new friends and stopped at Roberta’s favorite gelateria. It was her way of paying back for the Aperitivo, but something tells me we would have ended up there regardless.
With gelato in hand, we strolled the streets until we reached Piazza Navona which easily gave Piazza di Spagna competition for first place as my favorite piazza in Rome.
When Roberta introduced herself, she described herself as “Roman Roman” and as we stood at the center of Piazza Navona, she more than proved herself as she spouted off facts about Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers).
Francesca clearly felt the need to repay us as well, because we stopped in at Roberta’s favorite bar in Rome for coffee. Here I tried my first shakerato which I read about before coming to Italy. It is espresso shaken with ice and a little sugar until the liquid becomes frothy and foamy and absolutely delicious.
It was roughly 11 pm when we finally headed for the metro, parting towards our different paths.
Something tells me that it will not be the last time Joel and Mallory* sees Roberta.
*And perhaps even myself.