Rome. It’s a city which conjures up a lot of images and associations. Most of these come from Hollywood, with it’s many depictions of ancient Rome and the Roman Empire. So I was looking forward to exploring this truly ancient city, and seeing both the old and the modern.
We travelled there by train, on the impressive FrecciaRosso (Red Arrow). As we left Turin and headed to Rome mountain scenery gave way to more rolling hills and we sped towards central Rome station at a very rapid pace, arriving at early evening. We slowly navigated our way to our hotel (a journey which was made significantly harder when we realised that the directions we had weren’t valid as the tram we were expecting to catch had been recently re-routed..!). Despite this we managed to find our way, making use of an alternative bus service, to arrive at our hotel. It was the most expensive accommodation of our Italian trip, but also the least impressive, with a pretty basic breakfast and small rooms. However it was located reasonably centrally and made a decent base for our exploration over the next few days.
Our first day in Rome was a whirlwind of activity, as we planned to hit a number of major tourist sites all in a day. We were up fairly early, and at our first destination not long after 9am – the Colosseum. I still remember my first sight of it – it was very impressive in real life, and larger than I’d imagined (even though I’d seen it on screen more than once). Unfortunately the queue to get in was also impressive and larger than I expected, and so I was pleased to learn that Greg had a cunning plan… So we went over the road to buy a Roma Pass, and when we came back a few minutes later were able to bypass the main queue and go to the priority queue area which only had a couple of people in front of us. Inside we sorted out audio guides, and started our tour of the building. From the inside it’s even easier to appreciate the sheer scale of this monumental place, and imagine just how loud and busy it had been during the days of the Empire. It survived reasonably intact through several iterations, and a lot of the missing stonework turned out not to be due to years of weather or any other natural cause – rather once it ceased active use Romans started reusing stone from the Colosseum for other building projects, treating it like a convenient local quarry!
From the Colosseum we headed down the road and visited the main Roman Forum. It was a hot day by this point (~25℃) and so we took the opportunities we could to listen to the audio guide in the shade from the remaining Roman ruins whilst we learnt about the history of this remarkable location. There are many ruins left standing, from original buildings like the Curia Julia where the Senate sat and the judiciary was administered, and pillars from several old temples – including temples for Castor and Pollux, Saturn, Rolumus and Caesar (which although it has been entirely stripped by various Popes to this day the altar has fresh flowers placed on it by locals). A little further along is the famous Atrium Vesta (Temple of Vesta), alongside which is the home of the Vestal Virgins; priestesses of Vesta, Goddess of the hearth, who took a vow of chastity before taking an important role in Roman society. It took us about 2 hours to cover the whole Forum, by which time we were a bit tired and hungry and so grabbed a bite of late lunch before heading to our next visit – the Palatine Hill.
The Palatine Hill is the centermost of the Seven Hills of Rome and is one of the most ancient parts of the city. It stands 40 metres above the Forum Romanum, looking down upon it on one side. It is also the origin of the word Palace. I enjoyed our time here, it’s a relaxed area in the middle of a busy city and has some peaceful areas of garden to explore along with ruins of important buildings as well as mythological associations – such as being the supposed location of the cave where Romulus and Remus were found. It also affords some very impressive views of Rome, and I was able to get some idea of the scale of the city, as well as spotting the Dome of St Peter’s in the distance. It is remarkable how much of the palatial homes and temples on the hill have survived as the Farnese gardens were built over the top of the structures of the hill affording the Farnese family (which included Popes, Dukes and even a Queen) extensive pleasure gardens and aviaries of exotic birds. In ancient Rome the Palatine Hill was the poshest neighbourhood in Rome where the wealthy built their villas and palaces. We saw the Temple of Apollo (what little remains), the villa of Augustus (Roman emperor) and the villa of Livia (wife of Augustus). We walked round the Flavian Palace, and admired the Hippodrome of Domitian before heading back down, stepping away from ancient Rome and back into the modern city.
It was now getting close to 6pm and our next stop was the Vatican and St Peter’s Basilica. Traffic was dense and slow so we headed to the Metro in order to cross the city in reasonable time. As it was we arrived at St Peter’s just after closing time, and I was disappointed to have missed the chance to look inside this famous cathedral. Luckily a chat to a friendly security guard proved productive, and they let me through security so that we could look round for a short time before everyone was chucked-out. This brief visit was still enough to get some sense of the grandeur of the place, and admire the substantial amount of gold and marble which decorates the sumptuous interior. As we came out the sun was setting and I was luck enough to get a few shots of St Peter’s (Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano) and St Peter’s square in wonderful evening light – a beautiful sight.
It was now almost 7pm, and we had no time to rest! Greg had special evening tickets for a further spectacular destination – the Vatican museums. These are notoriously busy in the day time, and Greg had managed to secure two of the more limited evening entry tickets so that we could enjoy a more relaxed and considered visit. There was a big queue waiting for entry but security was efficient and we were soon inside, and armed with an audio guide we commenced our exploration. I hadn’t a clear idea of what to expect, but even if I had I think my preconceptions would have been blown away by what I found. I’ve been to many palaces and impressive buildings on my time – both old and new – but I think the Vatican museums have the most impressive collection of rooms, art and decoration of anywhere I have ever been. We started with the sculpture gallery, and were blown away by the breadth and quality of the sculpture on display, primarily ancient Roman. In addition many of the floor mosaics were exceptionally impressive and were by far the most intact that I’ve come across. I was also in awe of the Egyptian gallery, which had some magnificent work in great condition; much more so than I remember from the British Museum in London, for example. It seemed that previous Popes had been very effective at persuading local rulers (or sometimes plundering crusaders) to send the choicest pieces back to the Vatican for safe keeping. Sometimes when that didn’t work they simply helped themselves, using priceless artwork, marble and mosaics to decorate their villas and palaces in the time before the Vatican became the principal residence of the Papacy. We also greatly admired the several Papal apartments, one of was built for Pope Julius II (who wanted a more impressive apartment than his predecessor) and was fully painted by the best recognised masters of the age. However the Pope then changed his mind, and commissioned Raphael to paint over these works (which he did with one exception – that of his mentor). The result is magnificent. And then one comes to the Sistine Chapel – more awe inspiring in real life than I expected; in part due to it’s large size, but also due to the quality of the work – personally I didn’t find the one of the central and most famous works, The Creation of Adam the most impressive scene. The only shame is the large amount of tourists in the room (ironic, I know), who don’t observe the request for silence, and some of whom even break the no-photo rule. And in terms of impressive Vatican exhibits I haven’t even mentioned the modern art gallery, with original work by Dali, Matisse, etc, the Map Room, the Tapestry Room and many others. We left about 10pm, and headed straight home to bed after a long day.
Day 2 was a complete change of pace, and a genius plan from Greg. We donned walking gear, and set out to walk some of the Appian Way. Of all the roads that led to Rome, Via Appia Antica (built in 312 BC) was the most famous. It eventually stretched all the way from Rome to the seaport of Brindisi, through which trade with the colonies in Greece and the East was funnelled, one of the earliest and strategically most important Roman roads of the ancient republic. In Roman times it was refered to as the “Queen of the long roads”, and also happened to be the route along which Spartacus and his follow revolting slaves were crucified. It felt odd to be walking along the very road which carried Roman soldiers, merchants and nobles to and from the City, and some of the original covering of volcanic pebbling remains intact! The very beginning is shared with a road, but quickly you hit a pedestrian area and after that you are walking in what feels like park-land.
Just near the start we visited the Caracalla baths, a huge complex which at it’s height could cater for more than six thousand bathers as this activity became increasingly fashionable. The scale was vast – it’s estimated that they would have had to install over 2,000 tons of material every day for 6 years to complete the build, the precinct was 412m x 393m and the walls of the Caldarium were approx 44m tall. And did I mention it had it’s own viaduct? To complete the experience it also featured two libraries, restaurants and shops as well as masseurs, beauticians and hairdressers. Next up were the Catacombs of St Sebastian – a very interesting and impressive site, which we learnt served as the derivation of the word catacomb, which came from meaning ‘beside the hollows’, meaning the cave containing the necropolis next door. It has more than 11km of tunnels with tombs stacked 3 or more high in most places. They have also uncovered the remains of a cafe complex complete with graffiti dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul which was in use by visitors in the 4th Century.
We visited other sights along the way, including the Villa of the Quintilli, a private country villa so large it had its own spa complex. But what I really enjoyed was just walking along this ancient path as the Romans did. We travelled about 7 miles and given that we’d chosen a very hot day (27℃) we were also grateful for another ancient Roman introduction – the drinking fountains placed along the path. We enjoyed a picnic lunch and all in all found it a remarkably relaxing and quiet day; there were a few other walkers and some cyclists, but overall it was a little like we’d discovered a secret path in the heart of the city which we could enjoy by ourselves uninterrupted. And the fact that every so often we’d see an ancient Roman relic just lying by the side of the path just made it all the more magical.
That evening we enjoyed a fantastic meal in a small Italian family restaurant called Alfredo e Ada. We’d booked (with the help of the Venice concierge!), which was lucky as there were only about 16 covers and throughout our meal customers were queuing in the street to get in. There were no written menus, just great Italian food cooked by Grandma (what she fancied making that day), and and served by her son – himself a somewhat elderly gentleman. We particularly enjoyed the veal stew, and the house wine – served in carafes with small rough glasses – was excellent too. From here we wandered to a nearby square full of artists, and shared a little gelato to finish off our wonderful evening, and said farewell to Rome.