Rome is now toted as one of the world’s most exciting places to visit…according to Trip Advisor. Their recent reviewers have urged readers and prospective visitors to put it on their bucket list instead of by-passing it as many tend to do. It fact, it came in as the second best place to visit managing to beat out Paris! I suspect that one of the reasons for this is because it’s cheaper. For example, a cappuccino is usually 2 euros compared to five in Paris. Of course, Rome has many other lures,too… history, art and architecture, location, good public transit, Roman ruins everywhere, and the food!
This was a second visit for me having made my first in 1970. With that trip rapidly becoming a fading memory, I was eager to take a few days at the end of our stay in Gaeta and have Hubby act as my tour guide. He has returned to Rome at least eight times so I knew I would be in good hands.
Three days didn’t give us much time to see all I wanted to see. Not keen on standing in line ups to see the Sistine Chapel or St. Peter’s Basilica, I was content to settle for a quick visit to the square to take some pictures and feel sorry for all those who were enduring the line ups. I may live to regret it unless I can return again.
Because we happened to be there at Easter…one of their busiest times of the year… I agreed to attend a performance of the St. John Passion on the outskirts of the city in the Parco de Musica, a park with three modern theatres devoted exclusively to the arts. We attended this event on our first night, to be followed by an overly long, two hour Easter service next Sunday morning. This was enough for me, so from then on it was primarily my choice of what to do and see.
Rome is a terrific city for walking. The centre of the city with its numerous piazzas, churches, and famous Roman ruins can easily be done on foot. Places to see are clearly signed and, wonder of wonders, I didn’t find the traffic too chaotic. If you tire of walking or want to go to the outer parts of the city, you can take an easy to manoeuver subway, or a tramcar that runs from one end of the city to the other, or tons of buses which all seem to end up at the Centro Termini where all the trains throughout the country meet up, too. Our hotel was near the station which was convenient for us to get anywhere in the city and out to the airport.
A good deal of our remaining time was spent simply walking and sight-seeing, and most importantly, lapping up the ambience of this eternal city. When our feet and legs began to protest, we had no trouble finding a cute cafe for a drink or for a sample of that delicious Roman food. A favourite ‘pick-me-up’ was an Aperol Spritz in the afternoon. Romans don’t drink cappuccinos after ‘noon’ so feeling obligated to ‘do what the Romans do’ we opted for the spritzers.
One of our first stops was the Spanish Steps…a wonderful Baroque masterpiece designed by that prolific sculptor, Bernini, and constructed in 1726. Next to it, was the one-time home of those two famous English poets…Keats and Shelley. At the top of the steps, I was rewarded with a great view of the city spread out before me. In case you didn’t know Rome is built around seven hills and the Tiber River with no high rises in the centre…. they are all out in the suburbs. There are over 3 million people in all of Rome with over two million in the burbs. The centre has only 80 thousand residents. The crowds of people you encounter are tourists.
Rome has over 336 fountains which can be found in every piazza, large or small. The Fountain at Trevi is one of the most famous. Immortalized in song and movies, it’s here where visitors flock to throw in a coin or two to ensure that they will return again. I heard that they can haul in up to 2,000 Euro a day!
Another beautiful fountain crafted by… you guessed it…Bernini that great Italian sculptor appears in the Piazza Navona. There are two fountains here, but the more significant one is his Four Rivers masterpiece with an Egyptian obelisk in the centre. This plaza dates back to the 1st century A.D. when the early Romans congregated to watch their games. Later on in the Baroque period, they went to see theatrical events. Now it is used for a Christmas market and, of course, for tourists and residents alike to simply rest and have a drink at one of the numerous cafes. It has been featured in many movies: for example “Angels and Demons” written by Dan Brown and starring Tom Hanks.
Next to the piazzas in large numbers are the churches. There are many and they are all beautiful. Most of them are now a blur in my mind, but the one which stands out for me is the St. Louis de France boasting three Caravaggio paintings.
The building which most impressed me was the Pantheon, founded in 27 B.C., destroyed in 80 A.D., and restored by the Emperor Adrian in 118. In the 7th century it was converted to a church. The ancient Romans used it as a meeting place. Over the centuries it became a burial spot for the remains of the Italian kings. Today it can proudly claim to be one of the finest preserved buildings in our modern world. Not only this, it’s one of the few famous pieces of ancient Roman architecture that you can visit for FREE…and there wasn’t a huge line up! Once inside you will be awed by its structure. The huge domed roof with a hole in the centre is made of unreinforced concrete to let the rain in. But where does the water go, and how does this help explain why it is so well-preserved today? The answer is thanks to the foresight and clever thinking of the builders who put in a sloping floor with small holes for proper drainage so we can enjoy this wonderfully preserved building today.
You can’t visit Rome and not visit the Colosseum, if not to enter at least to go and gawk at it. It is the largest amphitheatre ever built. Construction began in 72 A.D. and was completed in 80 A.D. In its day it could hold up to 80,000 spectators who would come to witness drama, concerts, games of all kinds, animal hunts, and the ever popular gladitorial fights. Again we opted to forego the line up and the crowds to simply admire its grandeur from the outside. Both of us had seen it on our previous visits when it was mostly under construction. Today it is all spruced up and looking awesome. One thing we noticed here, as is true for most of the important ruins and piazzas drawing huge crowds, was the soldiers and sometimes tanks standing guard just in case….
Nearby the Colosseum is the Forum with ruins of temples and monuments scattered here and there. Both of these famous spots are located in what we know today as Ancient Rome. Construction is ongoing and what has been accomplished so far is truly commendable….and it helps bring the tourists! Tons of money has been poured into these restoration projects over the years, not only by the Italian government, but by organizations around the world. The question is how much is enough?
In between the piazzas, churches, and ruins, we found time to visit two villas both housing wonderful collections of art. Our first one was the Farnesina Villa. To reach it, we had to cross the Tiber River. The Tiber is a beautiful river which the Romans don’t give enough credit to. Like the Seine in Paris, it’s spanned by numerous small bridges… all walkable… with a bike/pedestrian path running along it. Strange that not many people use it. Could it be that the steep stairs leading down to the river are a hindrance? Our walk to the villa took us to small cobblestone streets and a world far removed from the frenetic pace of the centre. This area definitely had a village feel to it. The Villa de Fernesina and grounds were absolutely lovely. Antonio Chigi owned this villa and to satiate his passion for the arts became an avid collected of fine paintings by Raphael, Peruzzi, and Baldassairre.
Our second choice was another small gallery in the Villa Doria Pamphily facing the Piazza Navona…back to the centre again. This villa was once the home of Innocent 10 who was proclaimed, not only the pope, but the king of Italy in 1644 or thereabouts. He was one powerful man as was his family. In fact, the family to this day is still involved with running the gallery. Innocent’s cousin, Camillo, was the avid art collector so it’s thanks to him that we can view sculptures by Bernini, and, once again paintings by that very famous artist, Caravaggio, who broke all the rules of his day by insisting on using prostitutes for his models. He really pushed the envelope by using one to portray Mary Magdaline!
Rome is facing the same problems, if not more, as most large cities these days. Parking and transportation are and always have been a huge problem, as is housing. There is a whole city underneath the city above waiting to be unearthed. The question is does more money go into that, or should it go towards building a present day city that will provide for the needs of the people living there? Romans seem to be divided on this. The one thing we kept hearing was that they don’t much like change, yet they like to complain about all its ills. It remains to be seen just which direction they will head in. They hated their previous mayor so have elected a young woman. Could she be the answer to helping wake them up to what is facing them down the road? Rome has faced many hard times over the centuries yet it has managed to endure. Surely it will continue to live up to its reputation as ‘the eternal city’.