When in Rome, do as the Romans do – looking back at our Italian pilgrimage

Alex gives a detailed recollection of his experiences from our summer pilgrimage to Rome last month.

Friday 16th

So began our journey to Rome. Our pilgrimage group met at Heathrow T5 in the early hours of the morning and, despite the general lack of sleep, we were all raring to go. I had about only an hour’s sleep but felt wide awake with excitement! 7am and we were off!

We arrived in Italy mid-morning and our bus driver greeted us in a warm Italian way. After dropping the bags off at Domus Carmelitana, our accommodation, we headed out for lunch and found a restaurant which served traditional spaghetti dishes of the region (Spaghetti Amatriciana). We practiced Italian to get in the mood of speaking the language!

Then, it was back to the hotel to gather our belongings and now to enter the Vatican City (we had our passports at the ready, metaphorically!). There was a long wait outside in the heat and a security check before entering. Time to apply the sun cream!

Once we got in, there were a lot of photo opportunities and a great inside view of St Peter’s Basilica. It was possible to attend penance – which was done in several languages. I processed down to the sacred crypt which contained tombs of popes/saints beneath the basilica.

On passing through the dome was the next stop via “ascensore” – up the lift! I bought a ticket and used the lift, then the stairs – it felt like a maze but was worth it in the end. Eventually, I made it to the top, only to be greeted by a few fellow pilgrims! The view of “Rome from the Dome” was spectacular and resembled going to the top of Westminster Cathedral. I got a snapshot of St Peter’s Square from here.

Then, it was time to head back and Mass was celebrated in the “conference room” at Domus Carmelitana by Father David Reilly, who was leading the pilgrimage.

Subsequently, we headed out for dinner in the evening and found a pizzeria. The food was delicious – typical Roman pizzas with thin base. I ordered a plate of salad, thinking it was a small portion. But I realised it was a meal’s worth so shared with the others!

Finally, we went back to the accommodation and up the roof terrace, where St Peter’s Basilica was in close range at night. After a long day and early start, it was time to get some much-needed sleep.

Saturday 17th

Another early start – waking up at 7am felt unreal. Breakfast included a buffet which was downstairs.

Shortly afterwards, we headed off to the Vatican Museum! We were on a Full Day Tour and were given stickers to last the whole day. The Vatican Museum was already full of tourists who were raring to go. Particular rooms of interest included the Greek Cross Gallery, Gallery of Maps and the Sistine Chapel. The architecture was extremely captivating!

At 10am, we headed outside and began the next part of the tour – the Vatican Gardens. There were many photo opportunities and the scenery was enthralling. At the next destination, we took a train to Albano Laziale, lasting an hour, which passed through Rome to the south.

Upon reaching Albano Laziale, a bus took us to the Pontifical Villas at Castel Gandolfo. Plenty of water was needed for the long morning. At the Pontifical Villas, we were taken in a small carriage around the gardens with a guided tour (and walkie talkie headset!). The carriage reminded me of going on “It’s a Small World” ride in Disneyland, Paris, but without the music.

Next, there were three hours of free time in the town square. A fantastic view of the Lake Albano, delicious spaghetti at a nearby restaurant and special gelato and hot chocolate at a bar – this made an enjoyable afternoon. Souvenir shops were all around us and I practiced Italian along the way.

We then headed back to the accommodation, via bus and train. It stopped in a different place, but with the dome in our sights, we easily found our way back.

In the evening, I headed out with some others on an “extended tour”, visiting the Spanish Steps (Piazza Spagna) and Trevi Fountain (Fonti Trevi). We found a ristorante at 11pm and tucked in to a Focaccia and Birra Morretti!

On the way, we stopped at a gelateria which had multiple delicious flavours of ice cream! After another long day, eventually got back at 1:30am.

Sunday 18th

Sunday was a slightly later wake-up call and we were due to head to the Venerable English College for Mass. The breakfast started the day well, followed by a short walk to the venue.

The Mass was celebrated by priests who had joined the seminary and the marble work in the church was outstanding – typically Roman style. Next, there was a brief tour of the Venerable English College, where we could see the different rooms that were used. We listened to an organ voluntary, then headed back to Domus Carmelitana for a quick turnaround before heading to Nettuno – a beach town!

The journey to Nettuno took an hour and is where the Shrine of Saint Maria Goretti was established. The bus turned at a particular roundabout twice where there was a signpost of Nettuno, entitled “The town of baseball”. Hardly any sign of Joe DiMaggio around, being a famous baseball great!

When we got to the beach, the Church of Our Lady of Mercy was up ahead, with the Shrine located inside.

I relished the chance to swim in the sea and put my feet up whilst under a parasol for protection from the blazing sun. The church was “buonissimo” and I learnt a lot about Maria Goretti in the crypt.

The bus headed back for Rome at about 5pm.

After an hour of freshening up, Father David kindly treated us to dinner, which worked out a treat. I consumed a huge Sea Bass, which was cut in half to my liking. A couple of glasses of wine went down well.

A group of us then continued our late-night tour to the Roman Forum (Foro Romano) and the Colosseum – exciting! It was spectacular and the place I always wanted to see. Once again, we had another ice cream at a gelateria.

After another epic day, we were back around 12:30 and kipped.

Monday 19th

The final day, and one to make the most of! Breakfast was about the same time as Sunday, but we were due to check out of the hotel rooms by 10am.

We departed to Cardinal Nichols’ titular church for Mass, having dropped our bags off in the reception. It was about an hour’s walk to get there, and we walked past all the sights seen the previous night!

The Mass took place in the chancel of the church where we all gathered in a semi-circle by the altar.

After that, we visited the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, a five-minute walk away. There was a shrine there to pray and many different statues to see.

Then, we headed back to the accommodation by taxi, as it was a trek to walk (in the blazing heat).

Our coach was due to leave at 2pm back to the airport, so time for a quick lunch and last-minute gift shop. I bought lunch and posted a postcard.

It was time to say goodbye to Rome and Domus Carmelitana. Gone for now, but not forgotten. Our flight was due to leave Rome Fiumicino airport by 5:30pm and we had time for a cappuccino in the airport before setting off.

The flight was a good two hours and we touched down at Heathrow successfully – a triumphant touchdown I must say! The weather in Rome was in the mid-30s at best, but we returned to surprisingly hot weather in London.

Overall, the highlights of the trip were practicing Italian in restaurants, extended tours in the evening, the immense variety of Italian cuisine, ordering gelato at a gelateria (twice!), the carriage tour at the Pontifical Villas, going into the souvenir shops along the way and seeing the Colosseum!