Rome: Veni, Vidi, Vici
"Rome. By all means, Rome."
Is there anything more perfect than the bittersweet ending of Roman Holiday? That's exactly how I felt about leaving Rome. Princess Ann summed up my sentiments about the Eternal City perfectly in just five words. Our trip was buonissimo, filled with Roman ruins, basilicas, frescoes and fountains…supplemented by plenty of gelato and cacio e pepe along the way, of course.
We intended to spend two days in Rome in 2016 but due to poor planning and work commitments, we decided to skip the grand finale of our Italian honeymoon. We figured we could catch a direct flight there anytime and do a short stay, and hey! staff travel always lends a certain amount of flexibility to our schedule. So the best thing to do was to drive back to Frankfurt and fly back out of Hong Kong from there a day early (a nice way of saying that the flights out of Rome were really freaking full and we didn't have much of a choice).
Man, we did not know what we had missed out on.
In hindsight, I'm glad things worked out the way they did - the measly two days we had set aside at the tail end of our honeymoon were never going to be enough for Rome. Our four-day holiday in August allowed us to do far more justice to the Eternal City.
We landed on Friday afternoon and I spent the cab ride from the train station to our Airbnb in perpetual amazement. In just ten minutes, we drove past what I think were remnants of the Aurelian Walls, the Tiber River and at least two incredible churches. We were staying on Via dell'Arancio, just a short stroll away from the Spanish Steps, and a quick chat with our host established a couple of all-important facts - firstly, two doors down was a Feltrinelli (chain of bookstores in Italy) with a cafe AND a bar! And just around the corner, was a Magnum store where you could custom-make your own Magnum bar, Willy Wonka style. This was some seriously exciting stuff.
Ash had been to Rome once before on a 24-hour reserve callout (every now and then, his job makes me seriously consider a career change) so he was able to point a few things out along the way. The first thing we did was walk to a mysterious destination he remained tight-lipped about until we arrived at this magnificent, ivy-covered building with discreet signage identifying it as Hotel Raphaël. On entering, we were asked by the receptionist if we had a reservation. "Of course," Ash replied haughtily. We headed up to the top floor by elevator and a flight of stairs, and were then ushered reverently towards our table on the Roof Garden, a bar that was hilariously empty save for two or three other tourists. The views are pretty spectacular - from this spot, you have a uninterrupted, panoramic view of the rooftops of Rome. The drinks up here were pricey - a couple of daiquiris and G&Ts set us back about €60 but the view is hard to beat...unless you climb to the top of the Duomo of Saint Peter's Basilica, of course.
Just around the corner from this beautiful hotel is the Piazza Navona, famous for featuring fantastic examples of Baroque architecture and its three fountains. We spent some time admiring the Fountain of Neptune and the rest of the square set ablaze in the light of the setting sun. By then we were ravenous and ventured around another corner for pizza and wine at Osteria dell'Anima. We expected this restaurant to be a bit of a tourist trap given its proximity to the Piazza Navona but were pleasantly surprised. We each ordered pizza and were delighted by the paper-thin wood-fired bases, topped off with burrata, basil and tomatoes. Ottimo!
We followed up our incredible dinner with a spontaneous stroll to the Trevi Fountain, which is incredible by night despite being packed with people. It was much larger than I expected - photos just don't do it justice. According to Wikipedia, Pope Urban VIII requested a revamp of the fountain as he found the earlier version "insufficiently dramatic". I think we can all agree that the various maestros who worked on the fountain since then nailed the brief! It was one of my favourite sights in the Eternal City. I vowed to come back early in the morning to see it in daylight when there were fewer people around.
Our Saturday in Rome was extraordinarily busy with a 7am start. Ash and I are at two opposite extremes on the holiday personality scale. From the second we book our plane tickets, he'll immediately start doing PHD-level research about wherever it is we're headed and call me five times a day to ask me what "activities" I want to do at our destination...should we go scuba diving in Cabo? Horseback riding in Atacama? Sheep shearing in the Scottish Highlands? In contrast, I'm more of a "let's wander around and just take it all in" kind of girl. Most of the time, we tolerate each others' preferred style of travel until one of us explodes, we have a violent spat and then agree on a happy compromise. For our trip to Rome, I was way too busy to contribute much in the way of planning so I let Ash do all the work. I vaguely remember saying "OK" when he asked me if we should do two tours in Rome back-to-back on the same day. I had zero recollection of this conversation until he mentioned it on the plane in Hong Kong, right before takeoff. Errrrr...right. Probably should have paid more attention. This was going to be hell.
My initial impression of walking tours was that they were for geriatrics who were “too lazy to do the background reading” (my words)....great if that's what you're after, but not my style. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that walking tours have evolved with the digital age, and City Wonders, the company we'd booked with, was the epitome of high-tech. We were each given headphones that plugged into a little radio receiver, and our guide Viviana spoke into a microphone so it was like she was talking directly to each of us. It was very efficient and the perfect way to explore places as rich in history and steeped in culture as Rome.
Our tour included a visit to Saint Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel as well as the Vatican Museum, and was three hours long. There's no way anyone could condense its contents into a readable blog so I won't try to, but I will say I thoroughly enjoyed it and that it's a must-see when in Rome. I paticularly liked Raphael's "School of Athens" painting in the Vatican Palace - a 'who's who' of the greatest educators of the ancient empires, featuring big players like Aristotle, Socrates, Pythagoras absorbed in his notebook (presumably doodling triangles), Ptolemy, Archimedes and many more.
Seeing the Sistine Chapel and Saint Peter's Basilica alone was worth the price of the walking tour. Years ago I had read The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone (a biographical novel about Michelangelo) on my uncle’s recommendation, so I roughly remembered the story behind his masterpiece and the physical suffering he endured to complete the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Being able to view his handiwork just made it so real. Those frescoes were hand painted on the entire ceiling by one man. Alone. Saint Peter's Basilica was the same - it was just a whole new level of artistic prowess. It's no surprise that it's referred to as "the greatest creation of the Renaissance". We finished our tour by touching Saint Peter's right foot for luck - since we'd flown 12 hours to get to Rome, we technically were pilgrims on a long voyage...I think that makes it okay?
We had a few hours of downtime before the next leg of our tour - the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. I was particularly excited for the Forum and this tour didn't disappoint. Once again, our City Wonders guide, Guiseppe, handed out little walkie talkies and we followed him around the gargantuan structure as he described why it had been built. It was basically a PR exercise by Emperor Vespasian to win the support of the people - he came into power at the end of the Year of the Four Emperors and the Romans were understandably unhappy about the constant changes in upper management. It was previously the site of Emperor Nero's ludicrously grandiose palace, complete with artificial lake - which was drained by Vespasian to form the site of the Colosseum.
The amphitheatre could hold approximately 50,000 people and the way it was constructed - multiple entryways and steps that are curiously angled downwards, making you feel like the building itself is ushering you out - meant that it could be emptied in ten minutes (faster than boarding times for most modern day aircrafts!). We also learned that gladiators were hero-worshipped in ancient Rome, like NBA players are today but with a few minor twists. It wasn't unheard of for a wealthy woman to pay a small fortune just to spend a single night with a top tier gladiator.
We moved from the Colosseum to the Roman Forum which is right next door. For a classics nerd this was absolute gold. I have to admit that I was a bit of a snob in school and was far more interested in Greek history than Roman, so my knowledge of Ancient Rome is a mishmash of whatever classes I bothered to pay attention in. I had the most amazing classics teacher that ever was, Mrs. Marshall. She inspired my love for Homer and Greek mythology that has stayed with me until now. Roman history didn’t appeal to me personally but I tried to pay attention in class for her sake. Walking along Via Sacra, the Forum’s main road, was crazy cool. Our guide played a huge role in making it come alive for us. There is so much to see in the Forum that visiting it is almost pointless without a guide - unless you happen to be a complete Roman history buff, in which case maybe you should become a tour guide because I can’t think of a cooler job! One of the best parts of the Forum, in my opinion, are the Triumphs. The ancient Romans were a bloodthirsty bunch and believed that victories at war should be commemorated as much as possible. The Arch of Titus is a prime example. Its name alone suggests an awe-inspiring piece of architecture and definitely lived up to my expectations. This magnificent monument was built posthumously to honour the military victories of Emperor Titus; the same emperor who finished the Colosseum on behalf of his father Vespasian. He sounds like a pretty badass guy. Fun fact: He also shares my birthday, 30 December.
As we ascended through the wide walkway leading up Palatine Hill, Guiseppe told us the story of Romulus and Remus. They were children of Mars, borne by Princess Rhea who was a vestal virgin. The penalty was harsh for a vestal virgin who had neglected her duties (like being a virgin...), plus there was the pesky matter of her power-hungry uncle who usurped her father, Numitor, to the throne. He had made her a vestal virgin for the express purpose of preventing heirs to challenge his claim to the throne. So Rhea packed up the infant twins in a basket and cast them into the Tiber, where they eventually washed ashore. Legend has it that a she-wolf, Lupa, found them and decided to raise them as her own. The twins later became rivals and eventually Romulus killed Remus and became the sole founder of Rome. It’s an epic tale, but we will probably never know how much of it was founded on facts and how much on fantasy…though it’s safe to guess the Mowgli aspect of their upbringing is probably made up. The “warring children of Mars” angle would have greatly pleased the Romans, ever envious of Athens’s mythical ties to their patron goddess Athena.
What is most fascinating about Rome is everything we can’t see. Lying forgotten underneath tonnes of earth are many more remnants of this amazing ancient civilisation. Guiseppe pointed out the various ground levels at the base of the Arch of Titus to show how dramatically it had changed through the ages. There are hundreds of sites of archaeological interest in Rome that were probably built over again and again. “You can’t dig a hole in your backyard in Rome without uncovering an archaeological goldmine,” our guide joked. The ruins of the Emperors’ palace hidden away in Palatine Hill are one such example - buried by centuries of rubble and unlikely to ever be excavated.
One of the final sightseeing highlights of our trip was the Pantheon. We’d been in Rome three days and still hadn’t stopped by, so we woke up early on Monday morning to pay it a visit. We trudged sleepily through the silent alleyways of our neighbourhood, my feet shuffling on autopilot as we followed the instructions on our GPS. Then we turned a corner and suddenly, there it was. And all I could think was, wow.
It’s free to enter the Pantheon, and since we arrived early in the morning there were no crowds so we walked right in. It’s a national treasure, with good reason - it’s the world’s best-preserved piece of ancient Roman architecture. It was originally a pagan temple to all gods before it was consecrated as a church in 609AD. Back in the day, the temple was perched on high on a very tall podium. Worshippers would have to walk up an epically long flight of stairs just to get to the entryway. En route, they’d have to sacrifice some sort of animal at the altar…like a grisly entrance ticket to the temple. The interiors are austerely reminiscent of the temple’s pagan origins - they’ve remained mostly unchanged over the centuries. Notably, marble from all over the world was used in its construction; the ancient Romans were a proud lot and it is thought they did this to demonstrate the reach and might of their empire. They even made it a point to use some yellow marble from ancient Carthage - perhaps as a smug reference to its final defeat at the hands of the Romans? The most impressive feature of the Pantheon is the unreinforced concrete dome…how they managed to build it back then, I have no idea! I wish we had planned more time for the Pantheon and perhaps used an audio guide…but hey, gotta leave something for the next visit, right? It’s definitely a place I will revisit whenever I’m in Rome.
Every list of top travel tie tips for Rome tells you to avoid eating or drinking anything within a 1km radius of a big attraction like the Pantheon. Well, after we’d seen it and been inside, I just couldn’t bear to leave straight away. So I cajoled Ash into getting coffee at one of the few cafes overlooking the magnificent structure. I’m pretty sure it was the most expensive latte of my life but for that view, it was so worth it!