Ah Rome. Built nearly 2500 years ago by two brothers who, by all accounts, were quite well mannered despite being raised by wolves. Here’s the scoop:
- A more sensible Tom and Anna arrived at the Florence train station with almost twenty minutes to spare before our high speed train pulled out bound for Rome. One of the nice things about seeing Europe by train is that you actually get to “see” quite a bit of it. Unlike flying where you’re high above the clouds, or driving where you’re far too busy wondering why everyone is driving on the wrong side of the road, on a train you get to enjoy the country side, small towns, paddocks and the inside of railway tunnels. We arrived at the enormous Roma Termini station and walked to our hotel and checked in.
- After a spot of lunch (we decided to have Italian), we hopped on the Metro and travelled to the Colosseum station. The nice thing about the Colosseum station is that as you emerge from the underground, the first thing you see is actually the Colosseum. We marveled at it for a bit and then went in for a closer look. This enormous sporting arena, dating from the first century AD has survived surprisingly well for its age. Most of its original structure is still standing so, unlike other remains around Rome, you don’t have to push your imagination too far to get a feel for what the place must have been like in its prime. We managed to join a tour where a friendly looking Italian man gave an interesting commentary and made obscene jokes almost simultaneously.
- Surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly, the overall impression I had of the Colosseum was something like a post-apocalyptic Telsta Dome. It was easy to imagine finding your gate, pushing through the crowds, climbing the stairs, taking your seat in the stands, ordering an over-priced snack and sitting back to watch the tigers take on the gladiators. Of all the world-famous icons that we have had the privileged of seeing this holiday, I think the Colosseum was the most interesting and rewarding. It’s huge, it’s still mostly standing and after 1500 years since it was last used as such, it still feels like a sports arena.
- After the Colosseum we wandered up the street, past the Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele II (big white building with chariots on top), to the Fontana di Trevi, an impressive and massive fountain. We threw a couple of coins into the fountain, as is the local custom (when in Rome…). Oh yes, we also enjoyed some terrific gelati next to the fountain. Gelati and coffee seem to be excellent from anywhere in Rome.
- Finally, as the evening wore on we went to the “Time Elevator”, a “5D” history of Rome experience. Now in movie theaters your seat just sits still, right? Well, not the time elevator. As the movie sweeps left and right over the rooftops of modern Rome and a CGI representation of ancient Rome, our seats swooped left and right. As we flew through fountains, we found ourselves with drops of water in our hair. Through all the special effects we were treated to a 45 minute crash course in the history of Rome.
- The next morning we ducked back to the Colosseum and went into the Palatine Hill, where we saw more ancient ruins, including the forum and a private stadium.
- Next we strolled over the Circo Massimo, and then to the church where the Bocca della Veritas is hung. This piece from the first century BC, possibly part of a fountain, is a large disk, about one metre in diameter with the face of an unknown pagan god carved onto the front. Legend (and Gregory Peck) has it that if you put your hand into its mouth, and you are untruthful, it will bite your hand off. Evidently Anna and I are both truthful people as we both walked away with our hands intact.
- The Pantheon was next. This round temple with an enormous dome was built a fair while ago. Not sure when. Wikipedia might know. On the inside it is not unlike many older churches. However the Pantheon’s dome is open at the top, so that when it rains, as it had done that morning, the water falls through onto the church floor below. The Pantheon is also home to the remains of artist Raphael. Evidently they were originally placed in St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, but as Raphael’s posthumous reputation became less than worthy of a possie near the Pope, his remains were moved out of the Vatican and eventually wound up in the Pantheon.
- From the Pantheon, we wondered around the local shops and wound up checking out some of the artwork markets in the Piazza Navona. From there MORE walking until we were at the Spanish Steps. Another impressive city square complete with fountain and steps leading up to a church. I believe that their locality to the Spanish embassy led to them being known as the Spanish Steps. We had dinner near there (Italian again) before heading back to the hotel.
- Day three in Rome and it was high time we visited the Pope. We caught the underground to the Vatican City. From the moment we stepped up onto the street we were mobbed by people trying to convince up to take their company’s guided tour. We finally decided on the least irritating company (the spruiker was from Sydney) and found ourselves following an extremely friendly and knowledgeable tour guide through the Vatican museum. According to our guide, the museum has more than two kilometres of corridors and so many pieces of art that if you spent one minute at each item, you would be there for several years and probably be asked to leave long before achieving your ridiculous goal. We were shown past some of the more interesting sculptures, paintings and tapestries. Our guide had a degree in art history and was completing another in architecture, so he was full of interesting facts about the artworks. He finally showed us into a small crowded church at the end of the museum by the name of the Sistine Chapel. This was truly an incredible experience. From time to time in Europe you come across a piece of art that impacts you in some way. Inside the Sistine Chapel, you pretty much have to stare at your shoes to avoid such artworks. Our guide, once again proving his salt, took us through each of the panels on the ceiling and the front wall, explaining the meaning, techniques and historical background. We shuffled out suitably impressed.
- Feeling like we hadn’t taken quite enough steps that day, we decided to take the climb up to the top of the great dome. This long and dizzying climb led us to the very top of the dome of St Peter’s basilica. This must be one of the highest points in Rome as we were rewarded with a spectacular view of the city. With enough of the view and a little pale from the altitude we headed back down to terra firma. The dome climb stair deposits you back into the basilica itself.
- According to Catholic tradition, St Peter, the apostle, after the early church was established in Jerusalem made his way to Rome where he continued to build the church. He was eventually martyred – crucified upside down. His remains were stolen by his followers and buried on one of the hills of Rome. Years later, the massive basilica of St Peter was built on the site on his remains. The inside the church is breath-takingly massive. The ceilings are impossibly high and the walls impossibly wide. Everywhere you could see beautifully decorated surfaces, huge columns and expensive-looking marble floors.
- Finally we tumbled out onto the large square outside the basilica. I recognised the square from the grand inauguration of the current Pope. We ate crackers near the fountain in the middle.
- Remember the Sydney spruiker we met on our way in? Well, taking pity on a couple of his fellow countrymen in a strange city, he recommended a little out-of-the-way restaurant, not far from the Colosseum where locals (and few in-the-know tourists) enjoyed some of the best pizza in Rome. Well, we could hardly pass up a recommendation like that. After freshening up back at our hotel, we caught the underground back to the Colosseum, wandered the back alleys for a while until we found a pair of frosted glass doors leading into the restaurant. Inside we found a warm, friendly pizzeria busy with tables of locals enjoying the atmosphere. The menus were in translated into broken English. I ordered in Broken Italian. All in all it was the nicest restaurant we saw in Rome. The food was good, the atmosphere was pleasant and genuine, and the prices were among the most reasonable we came across. I can’t tell you if it was the best pizza in Rome, as I have not had the opportunity to partake in a representative sample but It was certainly the best I tasted.
- One more day in Rome to go, and it’s not actually a day in Rome. We will be taking a bus tour out to Naples and the ruins in Pompeii – hurry back!