When we first decided to go Rome, Cory went into research overdrive. I had come to realize that this is rather typical for her, but as a relative newbie I still found it impressive. Within minutes, I was presented with a list of hotels in various price ranges, websites for consideration, restaurants to look into, and sightseeing options. I did some of this homework too, and together we assembled a very good dossier to refer to while were planning (and while we were there - it turned out to be a great reference for food choices) but in truth there's really no comparison between my work and hers - when it comes to this stuff, Cory is a machine, and a high-performance one at that.
Another thing she found was a tour guide for a couple of our events: Jason Spiehler, whose advertising flavor claims he's the Best Tour Guide in Rome, and based on our experience, I wouldn't put up an argument over the title.
We first reached out to him via email, which allowed us to plan visits to the Vatican and to the Forum well ahead of time (the email connection also got us a discount on what was already a pretty darned good deal.) I'm the first to admit that guided tours can be thoroughly deflating, but under the right circumstances and with the right guide, they can add immeasurably to an experience. And, for us at least, Jason was definitely the right guide: originally from Louisiana, he's brilliantly spoken and charismatic; he has a background (and an advanced degree) in Historical Theology, and knows his art history inside and out. He's funny, too - those subjects may sound dry, but Jason has a really good sense of humor and brought things to vibrant life.
We met him on the edge of St. Peter's Square, where we joined a large-ish group (30 or so of us.) He used a little microphone/transmitter set up to talk to that many people without being loud or obnoxious, so if you see little black things coming out of our ears in any of the Vatican photos, that would be why. He talked us through the architecture of the Holy See, the history of the Papacy and its relationship with Rome, Italy and Europe, including the creation of the nation-state of Vatican City (complete with anecdotes about the efficiency - or lack thereof - of the Italian postal service relative to that of the Vatican's, which is run by the Swiss. We don't want to engage in cultural stereotyping too much, but organization really does not seem to be Italy's strongest suit.) His discussion of the buildings, land and infrastructure took us through the layers of history which are evident in the Vatican, as virtually everywhere in Rome - the walls, the monuments, the fortifications, the military actions, the artistic commissions.
We stopped at a caffe for a pit stop, and for Jason to collect our fees (which, again, Cory had negotiated well ahead of time) I had another of the fantastic espressos which I now seem destined to seek futilely until I return to Italy, and then we trekked over to the entrance to the interior and the museum and were greeted by one of our only undeniably negative experiences while we were there: it was unbelievably crowded, because of the huge number of visitors (Italian and foreign.) And it was raining. Oy. But here again, our tour guide came to the rescue: because we were in a group, we got to use the preferential (i.e. shorter) line to get into the museum. And because we were in his group, it was shorter still, as he haggled our way to a prime spot on that line. Still, it was a half an hour of standing in the rain, and the 3-Euro umbrellas that were all over the place when the sun was shining were suddenly nowhere to be seen. By the time they finally did appear, they cost 5 Euro, and we were wet enough that they wouldn't have done us much good.
Listen, the Vatican is incredible no matter how you slice it. Bernini, Michelangelo, Rafael - you can't really go wrong. But when there's someone there to tell you about Pomodoro's Sfera con Sfera, and joke about how it looks like the Death Star, it helps.
And it enhances your experience of something like, oh, the Sistine Chapel if you know something about the historical context; about Michelangelo's career, his professional relationships and rivalries and how they fit into his work there; about the physical process of creating frescoes, and the challenges of learning this process, on a ceiling, under a Papal order, when you've spent your life training to be a sculptor. Jason was able to give us this and then some, in a way that was entertaining and alive. And he talked us through the imagery on the Ceiling and in the Last Judgement fresco behind the altar that Michelangelo painted 25 years later.
And he talked us through the statuary, the tapestries, the trompe l'oeil, the architecture, the Pieta... Of course he didn't cover the whole Vatican, nor the entire Forum: no one could in a day. But let me tell you, people - finding this guy was more than worthwhile.