The last leg of our summer trip was Rome – we had left a cold and rainy Venice and arrived at a warm and welcoming Rome!
From the Termini train station we easily found our airbnb accommodation, and got lots of useful information from our host, the very friendly Juan Pablo. We were very tempted to immediately start exploring the city, but instead decided to get a good night’s rest to have the energy for the big days ahead! I popped out to the local green grocer (the only shop still open) to buy some milk and basics – the owner didn’t speak much English, nor did I speak much Italian, but we managed enough communication to get by.
Day 1 We started by visiting the local grocery store, and stocked up on all sorts of tasty treats – steaks, cold meats, olives, mozzarella… Then we packed a lunch and headed off to the Vatican (see this excellent short video by CGP Grey to understand a bit more about this country within Rome… even if you think you already understand its geography).
We had decided to visit St. Peter’s basilica first, and then assess if we wanted to brave the Vatican museums (which we had read were very, very full most days). It was easy enough to find our way to St. Peter’s square – we just left the nearest metro station and followed the crowds. There were tonnes of touts, selling tours and tickets – a few even managed to get our attention for a moment, but we knew enough that we didn’t need their expensive tours. Outside St. Peter’s basilica these was a terrible queue on the south side of the square – fortunately Brigitte realized that there was a very short queue on the other side of the square, so we headed over there (by the audio guide rental and the luggage storage offices; map here) and were soon able to enter the church.
St. Peter’s was impressive, and I was glad that we had an audio guide (the free downloadable Rick Steve’s guide) to point out some of the highlights. One of my favourite (and most moving) experiences was sitting down to pray in the Blessed Sacrament chapel (a little alcove in the basilica). Similarly, watching some of the visiting the nuns being completely blown away by the splendour of the basilica was also fun – some of them looked like the embodiment of people experiencing something “jaw-dropping”. Overall, it was really worth the visit (despite the queues and not even being able to visit the front half of the church due to a procession), and I’d happily visit there again if I have the opportunity (I would book a trip to the crypts then…).
We decided to skip the Vatican museums (including the Sistine chapel; see what Rick Steves suggests). It was a difficult choice but we decided to rather go somewhere less crowded – so we headed to Castel San Angelo. This mausoleum and fortress is only a short distance down the Via della Conciliazione (the main road leading to St. Peter’s square), where we had a picnic watching the local trinket sellers dodge the city police. Castel San Angelo was originally built by the Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for himself (to rival the tomb of Augustus on the opposite bank of the Tiber river), but later used converted to a papal fortress (and is indeed still connected to the Vatican by the Passetto di Borgo – an elevated and covered walkway).
Inside Castel San Angelo we slowly worked out way up – starting in the original tomb (which was converted to a prison cell) which is accessed by a long spiral ramp. One of the strangest features along the ramp is the “papal elevator” – a shortcut carved through the rock through which the pontif could get hoisted up instead of taking the longer walk to his rooms. The papal apartments have a variety of different styles, and some of the rooms are really very impressive, covered in detailed paintings full of symbolism and history (definitely worth having the audio guide to hear about them). We ended our visit on the roof of the fortress and enjoyed the amazing view out over the city – if it wasn’t for a passing rain storm I could have easily spent half an hour just looking at the city from there. Feeling tired and footsore we cross the river and caught a bus back to our apartment, having enjoyed our first day in Rome.
Day 2 We started the day by travelling only two (was it three?) stops on the metro to the San Giovanni area. There we walked around the old city wall, before visiting the cathedral of Rome, San Giovanni in Laterano.
San Giovanni in Laterano is another amazing basilica (without any queues!), giving a feeling of massive space and airiness. The portico was very impressive, with a beautiful marble floor flanked by giant doors and sculptures and covered by a intricately carved ceiling.
We then walked to the Colosseo district, passing by some of the remnants of Nero’s aqueduct. We skipped the long lines at the Colosseum, and bought our tickets instead at the Roman Forum. The line here was short (5 minutes queing, vs. 30 – 45 minutes 300 m away at the Colosseum), and we were soon wandering through the ancient Roman ruins listening to the rather good (although occasionally corny) Rick Steves audio-guide (free to download at his website).
We ate our delicious picnic lunch next to the Arch of Titus, looking out over the ruins and watching the tourists walk by. We marveled at the adjacent Basilica of Maxentius with its massive arches, and walked along with old main street, viewing the House of the Vestal Virgins.
After a few hours in the Forum we we’re ready for the Colosseum – with our tickets from the Forum in hand we skipped the long lines and went straight in. Despite the long queues outside, there were not too many tourists in the Colosseum. We (again) used a Rick Steves audio-guide, and spent some time looking at some of the temporary exhibits. We’d quite quickly walked through the whole place, and might have enjoyed a tour of the underground areas (but that requires an advanced booking and a more expensive ticket) – but we popped across the road and entered the Palatine Hills.
We’d not heard of the Palatine Hill before, so entered this third section of the Forum area without any expectations. In the cool of the afternoon, it was an almost magical place to explore. There were not many other visitors, and we really enjoyed stumbling upon different ruins and reconstructions. Some areas were under renovation or restoration, but the Stadium of Domitian (either a private garden or a running track – depending who you believe) and the Farnese Gardens were open and beautiful. The views from the north-eastern edge of the Palatine Hill were particularly spectacular – if we’d had more time I could have easily sat there for longer just taking in the city. That evening we enjoyed a big supper (steak!) at our apartment and went to bed early in preparation for our day trip to Pompeii (see our up-coming blog post about that!).
Day 3 Our third day in Rome got off to a rocky start – it turns out the bus system in Rome is not quite as punctual as what we’ve grown accustomed to! We waited for a long time for a bus, which them promptly arrives as soon as we’d left the bus-stop (sigh…). Eventually, though, we ended up in the city centre and, after a little confusion, found the Trevi fountain. It was quite crowded, so we didn’t linger long! After yet more confusion with the Roman bus system, we hopped onto the small electric 119 bus, and rode it the whole way around its route. It was interesting to drive through the grounds of Villa Borghese (looks like a nice place for a picnic) and through the centre of the Campo de’ Fiori (looks like a typical flea market). The bus is so small that it can only hold 10 passengers, and it squeezes through some rather narrow alleys. We even stopped for a few minutes underneath the Vatican in their massive bus terminal (fortunately a little old Italian lady quizzed the bus driver about which bus we had to transfer to, since we didn’t quite understand what was happening).
The 119 bus dropped us off outside San Maria over Minerva, a 16th century church built on top of an older temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis. The church was worth a quick visit, with its beautiful blue ceilings, diversely decorated naves and Michelangelo’s marble sculpture, The Risen Christ. Outside the church is the rather fun Pulcino della Minerva – an elephant carrying a 6th century BC Egyptian obelisk. The obelisk was found in a church garden, and the elephant sculpture was commissioned by the pope of that time to represent “a strong mind is needed to support a solid knowledge“.
Just around the corner from the church was the main reason for our visit to this neighbourhood of Rome – the Pantheon. This building has been in continuous use since the 2nd century! Again, we used the Rick Steves audio-guide… and again this was another attraction packed full of tourists. Particularly frustrating was the loud tour guides blabbing on, despite the pleas from the staff to maintain silence (the Pantheon is an active church) – this definitely detracted from the experience of this interesting building. It was fascinating to look at the building’s dome from the inside – in ancient times it must have been a most amazing site, since even today it is impressive.
We then visited a variety of sights – first, a giant marble foot tucked away in a small alley (the Pie di Marmo). Then the Piazza Navora, with its lovely fountains – of which the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi has the best stories – and Sant’Agnese in Agone (yet another church with an amazing dome). From there we caught a bus to the Capitoline Hill, stopping to look at the ancient Roman insula (an old apartment block with accommodation for 380 “commoners”) before climbing the Aracoeli steps and visiting the church (Santa Maria in Aracoeli) that they lead to. It was interesting to read that the columns used inside the church were all scavenged from different Roman buildings – with one of the pillars coming from a Roman emperor’s bedroom!
We then climbed another few steps up to the Victor Emmanuel Monument (where you can find that rare luxury – a bathroom) – the views from the memorial’s terrace are great (although are probably even better if you choose to pay to ascend up to the top by elevator). We then descended onto the Piazza del Campidoglio, a courtyard designed by Michelangelo – this was an interesting area and probably deserved more time, but we had other plans…
It was only a short walk to the ruins of Marcellus’s theatre (which have modern apartments built on top of them!), and then on to San Nicola in Carcere. This church was built on top of the ruins of three ancient temples, and for a few euros visitors can descend under the church to wander among the temples’ ruins. There is not much information provided (and you’d probably like to bring a torch along), but it was definitely a unique experience! Many thanks to the Revealed Rome blog, which gives some excellent advice to visitors to Rome, for highlighting this interesting place.
We then had yet more grief with the Roman bus system, and ended up catching the Metro from the Pyramide station to the Colosseum… there we met up with an old school friend of Brigitte, Brenna. We all had a superb supper at a local restaurant (L’Asino d’Oro – “the golden donkey”), followed by an evening walk past the Basilica di San Maria Maggiore and excellent ice cream (or should I say gelatto) at a gelateria. What a great way to end a good trip!
To be honest though… the true end of our trip was a bit less perfect, as this time the Roman train system nearly let us down! We tried to catch an early local train to the airport… only to miss it by a few seconds. That was not a problem as trains were scheduled to run the route every 15 minutes… but 30 minutes later we were still waiting for the next train! And when it finally did arrive it was at the wrong platform – fortunately there were lots of loud and angry locals making a fuss, so the plight of all those on the way to the airport could not be ignored! It all worked out fine in the end, as we made it to our plane with time to spare – although if I’m in Rome again I’ll not trust the public transport quite so strongly!