A Cuppa Cosy Winter Holiday 2019 – Vatican City

It’s the smallest country in the world. It’s among one of the holiest spots (save for Mecca/Jerusalem/and the like) in the world. It has quite the history in both good terms and bad terms. And we spent the better part of the day walking its paths, looking at its artwork, learning its history. Vatican City.

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Where to even start? Our route was simple, we started in the Vatican Museum, then the Sistine Chapel, and finally to St. Peter’s Basilica. Before we even go much further I want to talk about how we saw Vatican City. We booked our tour through Through Eternity Tours (website HERE). They have a couple different options when it comes to Vatican Tours, but we decided to go with the Early Morning Vatican Tour with Sistine Chapel. It’s slighter more expensive (though still incredibly reasonable) and the timeline is specifically set up to get you the best time in the Sistine Chapel. I cannot recommend them enough. We had Federica as our tour guide, and she was great. She had not only great art knowledge and Vatican knowledge, but she also has a personal connection in that her husband works there, her son was baptized there (by the Pope himself!) and she shared not only the important stuff, but also little anecdotes. It may have been a very early morning, but it was very early. Honestly- if you are planning a trip and looking at different tour groups, this is the one that I would go with. They have their meeting place, their headset and ticket gathering down so that when you line up with the rest of the tour groups, you are already ready to go and one of the first groups in. (You’ll hear about them again in the next Rome post as well as we did a separate tour with them elsewhere)

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Our tour started off with meeting Federica and picking up our headsets at 7AM. From there we headed to the entrance spot (one entrance!) and waited in line. We were up towards the front with only a couple groups in front of us. While we were waiting, Federica made use of the time giving us a quick rundown on the history of Vatican City and specifically the artwork and artists displayed within the walls.

The history of the Vatican dates back to the 4th century when the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica began over the grave of St. Peter (issued by Emperor Constantine I). As the chapel and location grew in popularity, so did the development of the city. The walls were originally commissioned in the 9th century (after an attack) and were expanded through to the 17th century. The Pope’s have not always lived in the Vatican; however, a residence was built in the 6th century with a tunnel connecting the Vatican to Castel Sant’Angelo ( from our first days in Rome HERE) added in the 13th century. The Catholic Church briefly left Vatican City to relocate to France, but returned relatively quickly and worked to restore and rebuild most of the country.

Much of the Vatican City that you see today was due to Pope Julius II (with a bit of Sixtus IV and his commissioning bits of the Sistine Chapel). Julius II not only commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel, he also commissioned a new church (St. Peter’s Basilica), and a new courtyard.

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Now, a quick foray into the Politics of Vatican City being its own country, separate from Italy and some information about the country itself. The Pope originally held power over its regional territories, but in 1870 a unified Italian government decided to take back the land located outside the walls of the Vatican which caused some…issues. In the 1930’s Mussolini signed an agreement that allowed Vatican City to become a separate, sovereign entity and had them receive compensation for the loss of territories. The Pope now only had power over his country, which is 109 acres and has a 2-mile border. The smallest country in existence. As many of you have probably heard, the Vatican does have its own post office, banking system, and you can potentially (depending on who is working) get a Vatican City passport stamp.

Our tour started in The Vatican Museum. The Vatican Museum actually takes you through the residence rooms of various Pope’s that contain artwork or statues that were either commissioned or used during their time as Pope. However, before you can get through to the artwork and rooms you go through the courtyard, statue, tapestry, and maps rooms. Each of these rooms featuring exactly what they are named for and each being almost more incredible than the last. Each room (or museum) has its own unique story and informational background. I’m going to link the official site of the museum and its history HERE as this blog post would get even longer than the last (and potentially more boring) if I went into elaborate detail about each spot. Instead of doing that, I’ll take a little bit to talk about each of my favorite one’s.

The map room in particular was incredible as the walls are lined with maps of Italy (and the islands) as it was seen at that time. It’s a much much different look at the world as this Gallery was opened in 1581. So much was still relatively “undiscovered” by Romans and their view of the world was much different. The walls of this room are lined with these maps and you can really see how they saw their “world” in a sense.

I also absolutely loved Raphael’s Rooms which, similar to the Sistine Chapel, were commissioned by Julius II and feature some absolutely incredible artwork. Raphael was given free reign over the design and depictions in the fresco’s and they are just an incredible sight to see.

A final cool spot (mostly because of the Pope) was Pope Alexander VI (Borgia)’s rooms. This particular pope is a very well known (some might say infamous) Pope and his rooms are exactly as you would expect. They are located in one of the most exclusive wings of the Apostolic Palace and were not inhabited by any other Pope’s. The ceiling of one of the rooms was decorated with pinecones, a symbol of fertility (yep you read that one right) and remained vacant after his death.

Something to note about the entire indoor areas of Vatican City is the floors. The floors are these absolutely incredible mosaic tiles, each individually laid and placed with care. These are the same floors that have been in existence since it’s origin. So, while you are walking through these various rooms, walking through the paths of artwork and statues, you are walking the same floors that many, many, great’s have walked before you. You are walking the same path that Michelangelo would have walked while he was working, the same path Raphael walked to get to this commissioned rooms. Just incredible to think about.

Once we finished with the museum portion (the Borgia apartment is the last to see), we headed straight into the Sistine Chapel. IMG_4474.jpgI have no pictures of the Sistine Chapel. First off, you are not allowed to take pictures in the chapel. Second, I don’t know that I would have wanted to take pictures even if you could. The Sistine Chapel is something that simply needs to be experienced, something that should just be taken in, without prior knowledge or warning. It is a spot to sit in silence and just revel at the beauty that is around you. It is truly incredible the amount of work, the paintings, the level of detail. Our tour guide, Federica, did a great job at pointing out a couple of spots for us to pay attention to when we did walk through. A couple of spots of note were the spots where Michelangelo inserted his…”opinion” on the commission. It is well known that Michelangelo had no interest in painting the fresco’s, he worked with marble, created statues- he hadn’t painted fresco’s in many many years. This “petty attitude” towards the Pope that he developed came through in some areas of the large painting (specifically where a little child is “flipping the pope off”). He also managed to apply this attitude to those who had…less than desirable opinions on the artwork (there is a Cardinal that is in a…precarious position in The Last Judgement).

We were able to spend 20 minutes in the Sistine Chapel before moving on to St. Peter’s Basilica.

I’ve already briefly touched on St. Peter’s, but I’ll continue it here (very briefly to spare you). It took a little over 100 years to complete (after being commissioned in 1506) and the alter sits directly atop the shrine of St. Peter. It is truly a masterpiece just in terms of a church not even considering the incredible art inside the church. One of the major pieces that you can see within the church is the Pieta by Michelangelo. You are also able to see two pope’s that are “on display” within the church.

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When they were ready to be entombed in the Grottoes, they actually were found to be in perfectly preserved condition. Instead of being placed down in the Grottoes, they were placed at two different spots within the church for all to see. That’s not to say you can’t see the other Pope’s, simply head down the stairs to the Grottoes and you can learn about the histories of each of the Pope’s. It’s a pretty incredible site to see.

Our final stop within Vatican City was not as part of the tour, but something we decided to do ourselves, and that was to climb to the top of the dome on St. Peter’s Basilica. We’ve always been “those travelers” who like to get above a city and get a sort of “eagle eye view” of the city. This was the perfect chance to get as high as we could and take a look.

I will say this, despite my incredible fear of heights/falling from said heights, this view did not disappoint. It wasn’t my favorite of our entire trip (Alter of the Fatherland was as a side note), but this one was so special both for views and location. It is quite the climb up (500 something steps to the top), but you are able to take an elevator for about 200 of those steps. The elevator stops you at a higher point within the church, so you are able to see the interior of the dome a bit better and see down into the church from a higher viewpoint. Also, the steps aren’t really that bad as you are going up, you are able to tell each part of the dome that you are in.

IMG_4323 2.JPGThe Vatican was one of the most incredible parts of our visit and something that I am going to remember for the rest of my life. To stand in this most sacred spot for so many is something that words cannot describe and then you bring it’s long (and rich) history…it’s a lot. A lot of feelings. It is definitely a spot that you HAVE to go to if you are in Rome and a spot that I think is best done as part of a tour group (the line to get in without a pre-planned tour ticket was INSANE…heck the line to simply get into St. Peter’s Basilica without the tour was INSANE too). Through Eternity exceeded all of our expectations and we will definitely use them in the future if we are ever in need.

And that wraps up Day 4/Vatican City. I hope that you enjoyed!

Austria – A Long Weekend

We had a little break over the Memorial Day Weekend and took a long weekend away to the Austrian Alps (I just love to say Austrian Alps because let’s be honest- they are beautiful and I have yet to visit the Swiss Alps). We had a plan of going to The Eagle’s Nest in Berchtesgaden, which was our main goal of this trip, and then spending a little time in Salzburg and just relaxing. A couple days before we left we found out that The Eagle’s Nest was still actually closed due to weather, so that went out the window, BUT I was determined to find other things to do and still have a fun, relaxing time.

I’ll be breaking down our full weekend in this blog post for you and then I’ll be doing a much abridged tips/tricks post later on. I don’t have too many tips, but I’ll share what I do have in that post.

After a relatively short, easy drive (about 3.5 hours) on Friday we reached our AirBnB in the mountains of Austria. We’ve (aka my husband) have been really nailing booking solid AirBnB’s for these trips. It’s definitely been the way to go as we got to stay in the mountains in a full apartment with a stunning view.

The owners are great as well, getting us registered in the system (a requirement), giving us some train tips, and recommending a lot of things for us to do near the different spots we were already planning on going. We had a lovely dinner off of the main street in one of the small towns, stopped at a grocery to pick up a couple things and settled in for the night.

Our first full day we spent down in Berchtesgaden. Since we weren’t able to go to The Eagle’s Nest, it opened up our day a little bit more to do a couple other things. We started off at the Salt Mines, or Salzbergwerk Berchtesgaden.

This was one of those fun attractions that really allows you to immerse yourself and puts a topic that may be interesting, but not that interesting in a fun interactive way. We had to wear miner’s outfits (which was actually a good thing as it did get chilly in a comfortable way), rode a little mine “train” down to the entrance all before the tour even really began. The train drops you off at the “top” of the mine, then you ride several different “options” throughout the mine. Once off the train there is a brief introduction and then a short slide down to a deeper section. Each slide/train does have a walking option, but I would recommend doing the slides and such. They are easy and a lot of fun! There is also a little ferry ride during the tour over the water used in the mines, with a lightshow and music. The entire tour lasted about an hour to an hour and a half. We ate lunch at the little bistro attached to the salt mines and soaked up the start of afternoon sunshine.

The rest of the day we spent wandering the streets of Berchtesgaden. We wanted to head in to their castle, but it is closed on Saturday. Instead we hiked through the streets, thinking of what it all must have been like at the height of World War 2. We stopped into a couple of churches, which is kind of becoming a staple on all of these trips that we are taking, as well as the local cemetery. It is so absolutely beautiful there and we had fun just strolling along. The boys enjoyed walking through the streets as well. Our final stop was for dinner, which we had at Gasthof zum Neuhaus.

Our second day we rose early (thanks boys who woke with sunrise) and caught an “early” train in to Salzburg. Salzburg is known for so many things, The Sound of Music, Mozart, The Arts, The Alps, the list goes on. First off, I’ll say the beauty of Salzburg is incredible. It is just mother nature at her finest in every part. I particularly love that the town was built with the mountains and river in mind. They didn’t change any of the beauty of nature, but rather enhanced it with the churches, squares, and fortresses.

We decided to work from the farthest highest point that we wanted to go to back to the train station we needed at the end of the day. So that meant a hefty hike/climb up to the Fortress Hohensalzburg. This is an 11 century fortress that was actually built and maintained by Prince-Archbishops. This fortress maintains status as one of the largest medieval castle in Europe. I will say- this was a hefty trek. It is all uphill (obviously) and is a combination of pathway and stairs. There is a funicular that goes both all the way up and back down- we didn’t know this until after we had taken it down. BUT the trek was well worth it for not only the history of the fortress, but the stunning overlook at the end.

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It was breathtaking to look over Salzburg, the mountains, and the river from one of the highest points (not the highest I don’t think). We had some snacks after the tour and then rode the funicular (which was also a stunning view) back down the mountain.

From the fortress we worked our way through the main square, and over to the Salzburg Cathedral.

This Cathedral has to be one of the most stunning cathedrals I have yet to see. The detail, the painting, the woodwork, everything- just beautiful. We walked through the Cathedral and then down to the Crypt. Everywhere we looked was just something to be amazed by. Truly a masterpiece.

From this Cathedral we headed over to St. Peter’s so I could live out my Sound of Music Dreams. When we walked in there was a performance going on within one of the area’s so we got to listen to the main song of The Sound of Music as we walked through the square which just added to all of the ambience.

We walked through the square, the cemetery, and the Catacombs (which meant more stairs). The cemetery holds some of the oldest graves we’ve seen as well as graves for some very famous people.

706016795891509037_IMG_4542.jpgOne of the final spots we went to was Mozart’s Birth House. There are two Mozart houses in Salzburg, the first being is Birthplace and the second being his Residence. His birthplace is still the original structure, with a combination of original and replica’s within. The Residence has been fully reconstructed after being destroyed during World War 2. We decided to focus on his Birthplace during this trip as we were starting to run a little low on time (and kids energy). It is truly something incredible to stand in a place that other prodigies lived and just see the lasting impact. This was an incredible experience and one I wont forget anytime soon. I have always loved Mozart’s music and to see his family lineage, and then his children and wife was really neat.

Our final stop before dinner and then the train home was Mirabell Palace. We didn’t go in the palace itself, which is from the 17thcentury, but rather just took a little break in the gardens.

The gardens are absolutely beautiful (as with everything else) and also boast some of the Sound of Music filming spots. We took a quick break, walked along the covered arches, and then peaked into the Marble Hall where musical performances take place. We then had an early dinner at Sternbrau.

Overall this trip was just as incredible as our other May trip and was just what we needed. I definitely plan on going back to Salzburg at some point to do a little shopping (we went on a Sunday when all the stores are closed) and a little more sightseeing. We also do plan on going back to Berchtesgaden for the Eagle’s Nest, the Nature Park Hike and the Castle. When we do, I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes!

I hope you enjoyed seeing this first trip to Austria through our eyes and our traveling. If you’ve been to Austria, let me know what your favorite part was! If you haven’t, let me know what you’d like to see!

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