Royal Caribbean’s Italy Cruisetour Maximizes Time & Place

By Karen Rubin

The 1 1/2 -hour train ride into Rome from Florence to Rome passes pleasantly. We sit among other people, commuters mainly – a few speak English but most don’t and that is an experience. The countryside is lovely.

The Vatican at night, reflected in the Tiber River (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

We arrive into Rome’s largest rail terminal, the Termini (the name refers to the thermal baths that existed), and immediately go to our waiting motorcoach.

It is dark already and the city is sparkling with lights that reflect on the streetscape.

We get a wonderful orientation to the city as we drive to our hotel, the Cicerone – driving up the Via Veneto, Rome’s elegant boulevard, and past what remains of the original city walls.

You know that expression, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Well, there is a date for the beginning of Rome: 21 April 753. How do they know? It’s based on the legend of Romulus & Remus.

Unlike the hotels we stayed in Venice and Florence that were historic buildings hundreds of years old, the Cicerone looks as if it is of 1960s vintage – that is to say, relatively modern. It is a four-star hotel, very pleasant and comfortable, but I soon appreciate its best advantage: it is ideally located in a lovely residential neighborhood and, again, walking distance from just about everywhere, including just about 20 minutes from the Vatican.

I realize that we have been going back in time.

Whereas Venice, where we started our five-day Royal Caribbean cruisetour, had its Golden Age in the 1500-1700s (the age of Enlightenment and Discovery), and Florence its Golden Age from 1200-1500s (the Renaissance), Rome’s Glory was at the start of the Common Era. So much of what we associate with this city – The Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Circus Maximus date back not hundreds of years, but more than 1000. Even The Vatican, a sovereign country within the city, provides links back to the earliest beginnings of the Common Era.

This is the Eternal City.

The Vatican offers five miles of galleries with important artwork of the ages. Here, the gilded ceiling leading to the Sistine Chapel (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

We have only one full day in Rome. And so, I do not waste a moment. Our group is meeting for dinner and I have a couple of hours to explore.

We have been given some pointers about how to get around Rome: don’t make eye contact with drivers when you want to cross the street, just go. Also, beware of pickpockets.

It is already dark when I walk past the Palace of Justice – an ornate, Baroque neoclassic building, constructed in 1954 with one million blocks of marble, that houses the Supreme Court.

I cross over the Tiber River – after years and years of flooding, instead of building the city up and leveling out the famed Seven Hills of Rome, they decided, finally to build walls around the river (I notice there is a bike lane at the water level there) – to the Piazza Navona which I have been told is important. There are artists, and the shape is intriguing – an elongated oval. It doesn’t dawn on me until our tour the next day, what this place is or was.

I walk back toward the Tiber River, and cross over a bridge, 500 years old. The Castel Sant’Angelo is in front of me, stunning in a golden glow of nighttime lighting. The mausoleum of the Roman Emperor Hadrian was turned into a fort to protect the Pope in case of attack – there is a secret underground passage from the Vatican.

I head up the Via della Conciliazione, with St. Peter’s Square right in front of me. It is majestic and profound. There are other people here, but it is comparatively vacant to what I can anticipate is a hustle and bustle during daytime.

I walk back to the hotel on the Via Cola di Rienzo, a busy shopping street, bustling with people, in time to meet up with our group for dinner at a very pleasant local restaurant just across the street from the hotel.

Our guided sightseeing tour begins the next morning, after breakfast, at The Vatican. Lines are already forming, but we go to a special entrance for groups. We again have our personal audio sets so our commentary begins immediately.

A nighttime stroll to the Castel Sant'Angelo, a literal fort for the Pope (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

The Vatican is surrounded by walls. It is an independent sovereign state; it even has its own jail. It also has its own department stores, tax free for the 800 people who live there and the 5,000 workers.

You enter through a jarringly modern visitor center – glass and metal – but once you get past that, the most modern structure in the Vatican dates from 1485.

Our guide, Giovanni, has been giving us an orientation through our headsets as we go through the entrance process; right now, only tour groups can get a timed entry, but next year, everyone will be able to make ticket reservations through a computerized system with a credit card, at added fee.

Giovanni warns us to be prepared for crowds, especially in the Sistine Chapel. Even with the hearing device, he is not allowed to give commentary in the Sistine Chapel, so he gives us an orientation before we go in of what we will see in the Chapel.

That is where the chimney is set up for the election of a new Pope, from which the smoke rises to let the world know a new Pope has been selected.

Apart from its significance as the central authority for one of the world’s great religious, and the place where the Pope resides, what I come to appreciate is that The Vatican is one of the most important museums in the world, with five miles of galleries. Its collection makes it the third most important Egyptian museum in the world.

The Vatican museum was opened to the public in 1506; visitors included Leonardo da Vinci. Only about half of the collection is on view.

Swiss Guard at The Vatican, seen through a keyhole (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

In a courtyard, he shows us an enormous pine cone, which originally was a pagan altar -for fertility and was originally at the front of the first church on the site.

Bronze and gold Greek statues no longer exist because they were all melted down; only 500 Greek works in marble are left in the world, and most of them are in the British museum. That helps us appreciate seeing the Greek statue on display here.

I am overwhelmed when I finally get into the Sistine Chapel. The last time I saw it, when I was in college, it had not been cleaned. It was dark and somber. Now the colors are vibrant, rich, joyful; light streams in from windows. We all crowd in – there is constant movement, and turning, everyone looking up�

The Sistine Chapel was built by Pope Sistus IV from in 1477 and finished by 1480, but the ceiling was originally quite plain – sky blue with stars. Michelangelo – who at the time was a sculptor, not a painter, was brought in to paint the ceiling, originally to depict 12 large figures of the Apostles. But Michelangelo, who first had to learn the technique of fresco, went for a much more complex design, eventually creating 300 figures; the project was so complex, that he did it all himself, laboring on a scaffold he constructed for four years, from 1508-1512.

The most iconic image is that of the finger of God touching Adam, a reflection of Michelangelo’s humanistic bent (that we had seen in his sculpture of “David,” in Florence), in which people responded to other people, to social responsibility and to God in a direct way, rather than through intermediaries.

Twenty-four years later, the Pope called Michelangelo back to create the Last Judgment – a gripping and frantic scene of vengeance and retribution, where even the “good” struggle painfully towards Salvation – that takes up the entire wall of the chapel. The work was officially unveiled on October 31, 1541.

Our visit to The Vatican is actually cut short – we are not able to go into St. Peter’s Basilica because the Pope is there.

A Holy City - a nun passes the Holy Door to St. Peter's Basilica which is only opened in Jubilee years; last time, in 2000, 8 million people went through; the next time it will be opened, is 2025 (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

Our bus takes us to the section of the city most characterized by the Roman Empire – we see the columns where Julius Caesar was martyred, the Roman Forum, the Circus Maximus where they had chariot races, and finally to The Colosseum.

This would have been a fantastic structure, covered in marble and richly decorated; three tiers held 65,000 spectators (the top one for women) – there was even a VIP section, with names of the occupants engraved into the “seats.”

Christians weren’t killed here in The Colosseum; that happened at the Circus Maximus, where they were literally fed to lions because the lions were considered more valuable.

The Colosseum was the place for gladiators to fight to the death. They were slaves or criminals, and basically given a fighting chance to survive. The best, most successful attained the status of rock stars and could earn their freedom and the right to become a Roman Citizen.

The fighting level was covered in wood and sand; there were elevators which brought the gladiators and animals up from the lower levels with great dramatic effect.

It is jarring to contemplate a society that was capable of the engineering and artistry to build such structures, and yet enjoy the entertainment of watching people being killed.

The Colosseum is stirring to behold (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

Over the centuries, though, people would scavenge the marble for new buildings. In 1735, Pope Benedict put up a cross, basically to stop people from stealing the marble for use in other buildings by making The Colosseum a kind of shrine.

Our sightseeing tour continues at the famous Trevi Fountain, an ornate Baroque-style fountain designed by architect Nicola Salvi. It is the most popular fountain very possibly because of the legend associated with it: throw a coin with your right hand over your left shoulder and you will return to Rome, two coins to bring love, three coins to get rid of it. The fountain is located in the center of the city. We walk through the narrow streets to the Pantheon, with its incredible dome that opens to the sky, and on to the Piazza Navona, which I learn was a stadium in Roman times, which accounts for the massive oval shape.

Our group goes back to the hotel on the bus, but I continue walking to the Piazza del Popolo, which is stunning as the sunsets and the city lights come on.

Our group returns nearby that evening for dinner in a charming local restaurant, Osteria St. Ana (Via della Penna 68/69), which caps our experience.

It’s mind-boggling to contemplate having journeyed through this many centuries within the compression of a 24-hour day.

But the Eternal City is not really eternal as much as it is a miracle of survival against the odds; the city, a manifestation of what man has conceived and made, is mortal.


Royal Caribbean’s cruisetours are designed to make a cruise a complete vacation, creating an opportunity to become totally immersed in the destination.

Trevi Fountain: legend says if you toss a coin into the fountain, you will return to Rome (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

This five-day Italy cruisetour, visiting Venice, Florence and Rome, which is intended to be added on to a cruise, did just that: maximizing the time and enhancing the experience of each place. It enables you to get a much greater sense of place than a shore excursion, where you have several hours or even a full day in a port, and gives you the opportunity to get to interior places that the ship can’t reach.

The itineraries are designed to hit the highlights and still afford time for shopping or self-exploration.

The key benefit is that the trips are totally escorted, with a cruise director who accompanies the group from the beginning to the end, and gives you the benefit of insider’s tips. And as we found, this is not just a luxury and convenience, but actually seems to expand time. In addition, sightseeing is conducted by extremely knowledgeable guides who vastly enrich the experience.

Being able to just pack your bag and forget about it until it magically appears in the next hotel room is like having a massage at the best spa, and apparently, Royal Caribbean is the only cruiseline to offer concierge luggage service on its cruisetours. This provides for a seamless, “no hassle” vacation. Priceless.

Here, an interesting element is that the motorcoaches travel with the group, even when the group goes by train, in order to take the luggage.

The hotels are deliberately selected for their location, as well as their ambiance. Not only are you literally immersed in the place, but this dramatically increases the amount of time you have to spend, since you are not traveling into the historic district.

The Royal Caribbean cruisetours are not cheap, but they offer value for money that comes from bulk buying and pre-purchasing, a hedge against fluctuations in currency, as well as access and time.

The Plaza del Polpolo (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

RCL also offers cruisetours for its other lines, Celebrity Cruises, which tend to be a little more upscale, and for its newest cruise line, Azamara, which serves more exotic destinations on intimate ships.

Cruisetour vacations are available in Alaska, Asia, Australia, Canada, Europe, South America and New Zealand, dovetailing with its cruises. In most instances, the cruisetours are available pre or post cruise, but in Europe, they are only offered before the cruise.

For further information about Royal Caribbean International and its cruisetours, visit or your travel agent.


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Wednesday, 07 January, 2009

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About Travel Features Syndicate

Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including, Huffington Post and and blogs at "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at 'Like' us at

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