American, Dutch and German tourists are very tall. They wear large hats and take up an inordinate amount of room.
Japanese and Korean tourists are far more compact. However, there are an exceedingly large number of them and they are always accompanied by annoying guides who walk around holding up and waving large open umbrellas or flags on sticks.
What has this to do with Rome, you may ask? Well, “it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a city sweltering in the summer heat, is clearly in want of a tourist” With apologies to the Steventon maid, I’m trying to make a point.
I’ve been to Rome in the heat of the August sun and had the city to myself. I’ve stepped into the Pantheon and been the only person there to marvel at the best example of a suspended concrete roof the Romans had to offer. I’ve been back in October and could barely see beyond the jacket and backpack of the towering person in front. I’ve been pushed and pilloried by hordes of other foreigners and once sought sanctuary by standing in the fountains by the Victor Emmanuel monument with a small chap from Chile who, quite frankly, had had enough and just wanted to get home to his alpacas as fast as his little legs and Alitalia could carry him.
Out of season, Rome is a joy. Beyond that precious window, take my advice, go elsewhere. Perhaps to Amsterdam, or Cologne, or even Texas. They must be relatively empty. After all, everybody is in Rome. They say that 46% of American have passports. That’s about 146,000,000 of our cousins from across the Great Pond. Believe me, trying to negotiate the Trevi Fountain on an October morning, it feels as though they are all there with you!
Now, I’m as fond of a fellow tourist as the next man. No, that is an out and out lie. What I want is the exclusivity of a city to myself, with the exceptions of the locals, of course. After all, it is theirs. Rome in August gives you that. You can be invisible. You can loiter. You can be at one with the people and the place. It’s bliss. Absolute bliss.
We stayed at the Hotel Modigliani (http://www.hotelmodigliani.com/), a charming boutique hotel not far from the Spanish steps. I have it on very good authority from someone who had a personal experience there that it is the hotel of choice of Art Garfunkel when he stays in Rome. Be that or not, it serves a fine breakfast and has comfortable and reasonably-sized rooms.
This cannot be a guidebook to Rome. There is so much to see. However, there are significant sights that must be on everyone’s itinerary. Places that will leave indelible marks on your memory.
Let me share a few…
The Pantheon isn’t hard to find. It’s on the edge of the Piazza della Rotunda and, quite simply, is an amazing piece of Roman architecture.
This is the second building to exist on this site. The first was commissioned by Marcus Agrippa back in the reign of Augustus. The current Pantheon, a much more modern construction, dates from the time of Hadrian in 126 AD.
The portico is impressive as is the rotunda. However, what really takes your breath away is that it has the world’s largest non-reinforced concrete dome. That’s right – concrete. It’s probably one of the best preserved Roman buildings in so much as it has been in constant use since its original dedication as a place of worship.
Inside, you stare up at the hole in the ceiling, the oculus, through which the rain still falls, and you have to marvel that the diameter across the dome is the same as is the height from the floor to the hole in the centre of the roof. It’s a coffered concrete construction, concrete squares or boxes, linked together to form the shape. Even today, this would be impressive engineering. T o have it there since 126 AD and for it to have survived is little short of a miracle. Now, just when you’re getting your head around that, let me add that the roof comes in at a little over 4500 metric tons.
Be impressed! I was.
The Appian Way
The Appian Way is still one of the main roads into Rome. It connects the capital with Brindisi in the south and, in Ancient times, the Via Appia was a main trading route as early as the 3rd century BC.
The new Appian Way is now a modern road, as busy as any major route in the city, and runs parallel to the old road. The Antica Via Appia, the original route, is well-signposted and walking even a short stretch of it takes your imagination back into history and the stories of childhood.
It was along the Via Appia that the Romans crucified the slave army of Spartacus in 73BC. 6,000 crucifixions lined the way from Rome to Capua after Crassus had beaten Spartacus into submission. You can’t stand and look down the Appian Way without whispering ‘I am Spartacus!’
What did the Romans do for us? Well, they taught us the logic and benefit of a straight road. The stretch of the Via Appia that exists today is still the longest stretch of straight road in Europe at 39 miles.
From Spartacus to Ben Hur. From one childhood memory to another. Rome does this to you. Nearly every site you visit has a connection with something that you’ve either read or watched.
The Circus Maximus lies between the Aventine and the Palatine hills and was both the first and the largest stadium in Ancient Rome. At over 2,000 feet in length and nearly 300 feet wide, it accommodated 150,000 spectators. Its main function was as a chariot racing stadium.
Much of it has been taken away for building. As early as the 6th century it was starting to be plundered. However, archaeological excavation clearly shows the track and it’s not beyond even the poorest imagination to take yourself back to the fictitious time of Judah Ben Hur and imagine yourself as Charlton Heston taking the bends astride a Roman chariot. Pack a couple of coconut shells and you’ll be in your element a la Monty Python.
Bocca della Verita
Just inside the portico of Santa Maria church in Cosmedin, a region of Rome not far from the Via Appia, is the Bocca della Verita.
It’s part of a first-century fountain but it’s been cemented into the wall just inside the church grounds. Looking at it practically, it might even be a manhole cover.
It depicts a face with a wide open mouth, the bocca. In the Middle Ages, it was a local legend that if you put your hand into the mouth it would be bitten off, particularly if you were a bit of a liar.
Today, tourists queue up to have their photographs taken with their hands in the mouth and no-one seems to have had to continue their holiday limb-less.
You might recall Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn going through the same ridiculousness in Roman Holiday. Daft as it seems, it’s a crowd puller compete with its own website at: http://www.dpsusa.com/bocca_verita_history.shtm
Back to inter-textual associations. If you’ve read Julius Caesar, laughed at Frankie Howard or seen any one of a hundred and odd films, dramas, TV programmes or musicals about the Romans, the Forum pulls you in as one of the ‘must-visit’ sites in Rome.
Whatever happens that might or might not be funny on the way to the Forum, it’s not just one building or open area. In reality it’s a treasure trove of ancient buildings, shrines and temples focused around the main plaza.
You really need to buy a guide book or ask at one of the Tourist Information centres for a plan of the area. There is so much to see, all open to the weather and free to wander around. What strikes you very quickly is just how much of it still stands and how big it is, including the staggering height of the columns. Considering the revolutions, wars and uprisings that have occurred here over the centuries, let along the pilfering and sheer disregard for antiquity, it’s amazing how much of it remains.
The Forum starts with the Kingdom of Rome, with the alliance between Romulus and Titus Tatius, back in the 7th century before Christ. We then move through the eras of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire finally ending the architectural expansion at around 312 AD.
Medieval Rome was a period of ignorance and much of it fell into disrepair. But, as early as the 15th century, it was already attracting the interest of artists and historians and the value and worth of it was secured for the future.
The Via del Corso
If you’re not likely to escape Rome without some semblance of shopping, then head for the Via del Corso. It’s the principal street in the centre of historic Rome and it will satisfy the retail urges whilst, at the same time, provide an interesting dalliance in people-watching.
You’ll be more than entertained by a surfeit of elegantly-dressed, rather well-heeled men and women, all dripping in expensive jewellery, watches and, above all, sartorial elegance. The Romans know how to dress and how to carry it, for sure.
The Via del Corso also houses a number of ecclesiastical outfitters. You can window-shop for a clerical outfit and watch Vatican priests popping in for a cassock, a collarino or a greca. Most of the shops seem to cater primarily for male priests. Presumably, any display of female habits in the front window would be contrary to good taste; perhaps female apparel is secreted in the dark recesses at the back of the shop. It does remind you of a Dan Brown scenario at times.
A quick diversion. I’m reminded of a time when I was in Doha, Qatar. Local women shop fully covered in the abiyah, of course. What puzzled me was that all the shopkeepers were male. It was fascinating to watch women enter lingerie shops with all the decorum and modesty of the Middle East to discuss their most intimate undergarment needs with someone of the opposite sex. I can only presume that they point and then try on in the privacy of the changing rooms. This must be the truth. As I was stepping off the escalator in one of the many malls in Doha, I almost bumped into a rather large lady who had been a tad careless fasting up her abiyah before leaving a shop. It wafted open with her movement to reveal the shortest pair of lurex and sequined hot pants I’d ever seen, stretched around what you might term as ‘a stout pair of thighs’. I didn’t know where to look. Well, in truth I did, but you are immediately reminded by your better self that conservatism in this part of the world comes with a degree of expectation and a price to pay for wandering away from the straight and narrow paths of decency.
But, I really am digressing.
At one end of the Via del Corso is the Piazza del Popolo, a huge square with two identical churches between which the Via del Corso runs down as far as the Victor Emmanuel III monument. You won’t be bored wandering its length. It’s been here since 200 BC when it was called the Via Lata (the Broad Way), but at that time and later in the heyday of the Empire, it was crossed by aqueducts and arches. By the 15th century, it was pretty much as you find it today, certainly in terms of architecture.
The Spanish Steps
A wide flight of some 135 steps leads up from the Piazza di Spagna to Trinita dei Monti church at the top. Yet, there can’t be a flight of steps that is as well-known the world over as these, The Spanish Steps .
Usually, they are absolutely filled with both young and old sitting around in groups, playing music, chatting, eating and drinking. However, if you come early enough in the morning, you may be lucky enough to have the place more or less to yourself. In Roman terms, they’re not old, dating from as recently at 1717. Tourists flock here. After all, Roman Holiday (1953), made them famous to cinema-goers around the world.
Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble
Ancient footprints are everywhere
You can almost think that you’re seein’ double
On a cold, dark night on the Spanish Stairs
Got to hurry on back to my hotel room
Where I’ve got me a date with Botticelli’s niece
She promised that she’d be right there with me
When I paint my masterpiece (Bob Dylan ‘When I paint my masterpiece’ (1971)
Just to the right of the Spanish Steps lies the Keats-Shelley Memorial House Here, in a two-roomed apartment that is now an intimate museum, John Keats died of tuberculosis on 23rd February 1821 at the tender age of 25. Whilst it’s interesting to see his rooms and the paraphernalia and artifacts that survived Nazi attempts to destroy them, what it was to stand by the open window and look out onto the Spanish Steps and think that Keats himself would have stood here. He would have lent on the window-sill, linen handkerchief pressed to his lips, suppressing the spasms of coughing that would have been accompanied by the tell-tale blood stains of the illness. He would have looked out at the everyday populace and flamboyant tourists on their Grand Tour, presumably aware of his ill-health and pondered whether he might see another spring. A poignant moment.
Victor Emmanuel III monument
At the other end of the Via del Corso, stands the Victor Emmanuel III monument.
It’s a major traffic thoroughfare and crossroads and staffed by some of the most attractive police women you’re ever likely to see. There’s something about the police in Rome. The men are always immaculate with crisp blue shirts, beautifully pressed trousers and incredibly shiny shoes. The women are all stunningly good-looking. Dark skin, dark hair and the most expensive sunglasses their salaries can buy. Trust me, I exaggerate not. Just Google web images and you’ll see for yourself. Better still, book a trip. There’s nothing like the real thing. One word of caution, though. Any photographing of policemen, women or stations needs to be avoided. They are very protective of their status and you may be taken to one side by plain clothes personnel and made to account for yourself. Believe me, I know. I had a lengthy grilling one evening on the very same matter.
The Victor Emmanuel Monument goes by a number of names. It’s the Altare della Patria or the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele III. One side of it is the Piazza Venezia and the other is the Capitoline Hill.
The lower areas house the museum of Italian Unification and there is a lift that will take you up to the roof to enjoy a panoramic view across Rome. It’s worth making this part of your visit.
The main section of the monument is the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, constructed after World War One, complete with eternal flame and heavily guarded by the Italian military. It’s by far the largest monument in Rome and it’s difficult to believe that it’s not a major government building or a state residence.
The Trevi Fountain
Three coins in the fountain
Each one seeking happiness
(Thrown by three hopeful lovers)
(Which one will the fountain bless?)
There are so many piazzas in Rome and so many fountains. It’s hard to cover them all. However, as they say ‘When in Rome…’ so I suppose everybody should make their way to see the Trevi fountain. That’s the main problem, though. Everybody makes their way to see it. It’s always horribly busy, which keeps the pickpockets busy and the ice-cream salesmen in a lucrative business.
Back in 19 BC the source of the water that feeds the fountain was discovered some eight kilometres outside of Rome. Work was commissioned to produce a straight aqueduct to bring fresh water into the city and to provide water for the Agrippa Hot Baths.
By the 17th century, the fountain was in need of a makeover and was considered insufficiently dramatic. Salvi started the current fountain in the 1740s, taking ideas from earlier sketches by Bernini. Eventually Pannini finished the building in 1753. The most recent renovation, which included cleaning and repairing of cracks, was as recent as 1998.
It’s situated at the junction of three roads. The over-riding thought that I had was that it was just too big for its place. It’s monstrously large. It is beautiful, but it’s difficult to get far enough away from it to appreciate its proportions and its splendour. It’s two stories high with gigantic tritons and horses with Corinthian pilasters and statues. It defines ‘over the top’.
Apparently, over 3,000 Euros are thrown, right handed over left shoulder, into the fountain every day. The money supports the poor in Rome. There are countless beggers and the visibly needy around Rome, as there are in all European cities. So, whilst it might seem to be a ‘tourist trap’, it has a good cause behind it.
One other piazza you should try and visit is Piazza Navona. It has its usual array of fountains, statues and marble. However, this is also the site of the Rome market, especially at Christmas and other significant times of the year. As a result, it’s very much a gathering place for locals with excellent street entertainment and summer concerts.
Don’t just go and see the Colosseum. Give yourself enough time to go inside and spend some time working your way up from the lower reaches where the slaves and the animals were kept. Follow their route up through the various levels and out into the open arena. It’s not possible to walk right into the centre of the arena but you can access the seating areas and the images it evokes fill the imagination. It’s not hard to conjure up the sights and smells that faced Maximus Decimus Aurelius or, better still, the real-life Carpophorus who once killed twenty wild beasts in a single battle within the very same walls.
The Emperor Domitian once had a heckler torn limb from limb by a pack of ravenous wild dogs for mocking the Emperor’s favourite gladiator. That’s the Colosseum for you!
It’s worth remembering that, as an amphitheatre, it dates back to 80 AD, although it is considerably older that this. Audiences averaged 65,000 and it was used for ‘entertainments’ right through to the early medieval era.
It’s mind-mindbogglingly big, historically significant and one of the World’s great treasures.
The castle towers above you at the Parco Adriano. It was once the tallest building in Rome and built as a Mausoleum for the Emperor Hadrian and his family. Later, the Popes used it as a fortress and a castle before it became the museum it is today.
Over the centuries, the vast majority of the contents of Hadrian’s tombs have been lost to pillaging and looting by the marauding tribes who attached Rome after its fall. There is more left from its time as a Papal prison and as well as being an interesting museum, it is also a handy vantage point for views across Rome and across the Tiber.
It is from here and along the banks of the Tiber than you see not only the glory that was once Rome, but also the glory that is Rome, the Vatican City.
The Vatican City
I could write on the Vatican City for chapter upon chapter. There is enough out there to prepare you for a visit and to provide the historical background that you’ll need without me adding to it.
Rather, just a few things you really should try and experience when you visit the Vatican City, the walled enclave within the city of Rome itself. It has a population of only 842 and is guarded by its own police force, and borrows from the Swiss military who provide single Catholic males for the Pontifical guard.
There is a lift (and a staircase) that will take you to the roof of the Basilica and a walk-way around the interior dome of St Peter’s Basilica. Looking down, you begin to realise just how massive an edifice it is. Far, far below, tourists and worshipers walk the main aisles and appear like ants from your vantage point high up in the roof. Look up and you’ll be stunned by the beauty of the decoration and painting of the roof itself. That’s the advantage of being able to being so close. Watch the way the light moves as it casts its rays down into the church below. It’s no wonder that people here feel close to God.
Stepping outside and if you’re lucky enough to be ‘out of season’, the square below will be quiet and you’ll be able to appreciate the symmetry and beauty of the architecture. The views are magnificent.
The Sistine Chapel
Queues into the Sistine Chapel can be lengthy and tiresome. However, nobody is allowed to stay there for long and, as there is no photography allowed, people, move through at a fairly decent rate.
It’s surprising how ‘NO PHOTOGRAPHS’ is so readily ignored. Despite being in many languages, there are so many tourists with smartphones and cameras that, providing you avoid using a flash and steer well clear of the guards, you may well be able to snap yourself a shot of the ceiling and of Michelangelo’s frescoes, particularly the Creation of Adam, which is why people queue for so long to spend a few precious moments marveling at something they may never see ‘in the flesh’ again.
Time is short and the World is full of many new, fresh and exciting places as yet not visited. Rome is one place that I have returned to on a number of occasions. IT draws you back with its sense of majesty and splendour, its warm welcome and its good food.
Go and visit. You won’t be surprised why people who have been to Rome return home so enthusiastic in their praise for this glorious city.
Never mind about Sorrento, take me back to Rome.