Rome & Vatican City

Rome. A city founded 750 years before Christ and if the legend is to be believed by the two brothers Romulus and Remus who were raised by wolves. However, when deciding what to name their new founded city, one brother killed the other and named it after himself. I’ll let you guess which one. Of course an empire founded on fratricide that covered most of modern day Europe, Northern Africa and the Middle East was going to have a brutally bloody, yet interesting history. I made the mistake of assuming that being the capital seat of the Roman Empire, that the city would be larger than it is.

Rome is actually small and compact, boasting only two metro lines and a population of around 2.6 million. London by comparison has 11 metro lines and over 8.6 million people. Nonetheless Rome is bursting with sights, and heading there allows you to get the two-for-one experience; as nestled in the middle of this ancient city is the center of Christendom on Earth – the Catholic Church. At less than 1 square Km it is the smallest recognized country in the world. But do not think that Rome is simply full of ruins (which is not incorrect) it is also a haven for shoppers, artists, designers, wine and food connoisseurs, history buffs, the devout, museum geeks and fashionistas alike. So there is pretty much something for everyone! I decided to head to Rome and the Vatican as there was a cracking deal with British Airways for a 4* hotel and flights for 5 nights for under £300 a person. Hotels are not my normal form of accommodation so I thought I’d give it a bash. I also went with my parents and the idea was we would go somewhere that none of us had been before and see the sights. We don’t get to go abroad as a family often so I thought this would be a nice place to go. Roman history fascinated me as a child (and frankly still does) and I loved seeing the old forts along the route of Hadrian’s Wall when I walked it’s length back  in 2001. To see Roman history in it’s birth place was very exciting for me, plus we all love Italian food, so all round this was a win-win!

Rome

Flying to Roma (Rome) is pretty darn easy from London, hop on a plane and a couple hours later you’re touching down. So it’s bye-bye cold weather, so long cloudy skies and instead it’s hello sunburn and ciao bel tempo! Once you land at the airport things are pretty straight forward but not hugely cheap. The ticket machines at the station have an English language option so don’t fret if you don’t speak Italian. Most locales are also well versed in English, but I think they, like most people I’ve met on my travels appreciate if you try – they may laugh at you but still trying goes a long way. At least say hello, please and thank-you in the local tongue! We landed at Fiumicino or Leonardo Da Vinci International and had to get a train to Rome. It was €15 each, one way. This is before paying for the metro. So it is pretty pricey and when we thought about it we wondered why we didn’t look into transfers. The hotel did offer them and although they were fractionally more expensive, they were far quicker and provided a door-to-door service and included air conditioning (great in the +30°c heat) as well as bottles of water. The driver we had on route back to the airport was super friendly and gave us a free tour of the parts of Rome that we were going through which was also very nice. So transfers are well worth keeping in mind for Rome. Of course if it’s just you, then that really hikes up the price but for groups it’s a solid option.

Upon arrival in Rome we caught one of the two metro lines to the nearest stop to the hotel. The metro here is not substantial at all, you will be doing a lot of walking. In hindsight the heat and length of the walk meant it would have been easier to get a taxi but hey you live and learn. The hotel itself was lovely. Clean and presentable with friendly staff. The hotel in question was the Dei Mellini (Via Muzio Clementi, 81, 00193 Roma RM). Considering an all you can eat breakfast was included in the price this hotel really was value for money. We were less than a mile from the Vatican and a short tube ride from sites such as the Foro Romano and Anfiteatro Flavio Colosseo. The hotel is just off of the Piazza Cavour and there are a number of places to eat dinner round there. We enjoyed the Ristorante Pizzaria La Francescana on Via Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. It looks like a family run establishment and the food is decent and reasonably priced not to mention there was a fair few Italians eating here. Always a good sign! Alternatively head to the area surrounding the Pantheon or the Fontana de Trevi (Centro Storico). These places are more expensive due to them being in tourist hotspots but the quality of food is still good. Naturally the hotel offers room service but this was very pricey and in my opinion it’s much better to eat out. One thing you’ll be eating in droves is gelato. The best we found was Gelarmony (Via Marcantonio Colonna, 34) which was super cheap, enough flavours to keep you going for years and queues telling you how good it is before you taste anything. The bonus with this place is that if gelato isn’t your thing (if it’s not chances are it will be when you leave) then there’s plenty of other sweet treats to be had.

Of the sites to see in Rome my favourites were the Pantheon and the Foro Romano. The Pantheon is an ancient church constructed around 126 AD by Emperor Hadrian (the same one I guess who built a wall across England) to replace the one built during Emperor Augustus’ reign. The church has a hole cut into the roof. That allows natural sunlight and of course rainwater to come in. The water is able to leave the Pantheon by small drains hidden into the intricate tiled flooring. Now I’m not a religious man, but the sight of that light falling through the roof and landing on many of the numerous angel statues really looked heavenly. The dome itself may not look like much but when you consider that 2,000 years after construction it is still the world’s largest non-reinforced concrete dome; then that’s a pretty impressive feat of engineering if you ask me. We were told while we were there that the hole in the middle, aside from being a rather nice aesthetic feature also allows the dome to support the weight around the outer circle of the hole, thus stopping the roof collapsing in under it’s own weight.

Now if you think the Pantheon is old, try the Foro Romano located next to Anfiteatro Flavio Colosseo (or Roman Forum and Colosseum respectively as they are more commonly known to tourists). Some parts of the Forum which is considered to have been the centerpiece of the ancient city of Rome, were built as early as the 8th century BC. That’s nearly 800 years before Hadrian’s Pantheon or the Roman founding of Londinium (London) which puts the age into some perspective. This is some serious history right here. There is plenty to explore in the Forum and I’d recommend checking out the old vineyards for views over the Colosseo; or take to the gardens up top in the Palatino to look down over the center of the Forum and the rest of Rome. Incidentally an excellent place to have; in terribly British practice, a picnic. This is what we did, under the shade of some trees. It was most enjoyable, particularly while watching storm clouds gather in the distance. Do make sure you check out the old shrine and read the labels about what everything used to be in the oldest part of the Forum. While you’re there see if you can find the Umbilicus Urbis or Mundus which was in other words the symbolic center of the city. Greek and Roman legend also dictate that this was also the path to the Underworld. A tether between the world’s of the living and the dead. The clue is in the name! I’ve grown up in London which is around 2000 years old (crazy but true) and there is much history to be found largely in part to the Romans ironically and I am used to seeing old churches which are hundreds of years old (if not older) sitting side-by-side with modern skyscrapers of steel and glass, but being in Rome bowled me over with it’s age. It is truly remarkable. I have been to Greece and I knew things were old but I never went there at an age to truly appreciate the time frames, history and age of structures like I did in Rome.

Of course the Colosseum is a must do and if your interested you can get joint tickets to both the Colosseo and Foro Romano. My advice here is to seriously buy your tickets in advance, print them off and bring them with you. We met a couple who had been scammed here paying upwards of nearly €80 each to see the Colosseum it should more like €12 for both attractions. They enjoyed it nonetheless and said that the tour they received was very good, but they hated the fact they had been cheated. This is a common tourist trap tactic the world over, so at all big attractions be on your guard. I’d recommend using Co Op Culture. There are also a number of free tickets available; for example for those aged under 18 who are European citizens as well as some on the first Sunday of each month. Check the website for more details and booking. The Amphitheatre is much smaller than I expected, but this by no means makes it any less impressive. The structure is amazing considering it’s age, when we were there it was clear that they were undertaking structural repairs to preserve what is left. It was mad to think of what it must have looked like in all it’s glory. Sadly much of it was torn down to build other parts of the city. Being a little on the cheeky side I overheard a tour explaining about the gladiator pits and I decided to stay and listen for a while. Most of them are now uncovered save for one end. These pits as I learnt were lit poorly and were tightly enclosed. The gladiators and animals were kept down there until they were sent into the light to fight. A simple wooden floor covered in sand and littered with hidden trap doors was what laid overhead. The area that still has flooring is accessible by arranged tours only, so you will need to pay extra. There are three floors to explore with a small museum on the 2nd or 3rd. Be warned the stairs are steep and pretty high between steps. There is a lift at the museum I believe. Enjoy the views looking down but be prepared to jostle for the best places to take photos. The Colosseum is accessible by the metro station Colosseo-Salvi (Blue line).

The other places in Rome which are worth visiting would be the Fontana de Trevi, which sadly was under renovation when we were there and as such not open to the public. The Il Pincio located above the Piazza del Popolo near Villa Borghese is another, where there are some stellar views across the capital from the Pantheon to St. Peter’s Basilica as well as some awesome gardens to walk around. You might even meet a Centurion like we did! There are public toilets available but be warned it is a reasonably steep climb with quite a few steps! All steps seem to be steep in Rome! Perhaps you could also explore Piazza Navona where there was a market going on with lots of art work for sale. There are plenty of fountains to enjoy but the best is Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi – the one with the big obelisk in the middle. The four jets of water represent the rivers Nile, Ganges, Danube and Plate which depicted the then four known continents of the globe. Yes Rome is so old not even America was known to them! Don’t forget to indulge in some gelato while you’re at Navona, a good place is on the Piazza and the corner of Via de Sant’Agnese in Agone. It’s cheap, there’s plenty of flavours to choose from and it comes with way to much for the container to handle. So eat quickly! Speaking of famous artists such as Bernini, there is no shortage of masterpieces scattered throughout the city. Quite often you may miss them without realizing. As such make sure you head to the Baroque style church Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi (The Church of St. Louis of the French) to see some original Caravaggio paintings. Those located here together form the Cycle of St. Matthew. Since they are in a church voices need to be kept to a minimum and like most art works flash photography is not permitted. The church closes at certain times during the day so check ahead to see if it’s open before heading out. It can also get quite busy. If you want to do some people watching then there is no better place in Rome than the Spanish Steps (Scalinata di Trinità dei Monti) with excellent views from the top. We went at sunset and it was remarkably beautiful, but as always the climb is… …you guessed it steep and full of plenty of steps! Since I was only there for about 4 days I didn’t have much time for anything else – the heat was rather exhausting but there are plenty of other museums, castles and for the more daring among you, catacombs. One thing to consider if you’re short on time or if you’d prefer to give your feet a rest is a tour bus. These will stop at most tourist locations around the city to hop on and off at and will let you see everything from the comfort of an open top bus. Most hotels will sell tickets for these, or at least the Dei Mellini did. I really enjoyed the bus tour as we got to see most of the city in a quick whistle stop tour; seeing some sights from a different angle from when we visited on foot and seeing some others that we didn’t get to see at all. From memory a full city tour takes a good 2-3 hours to complete.

Vatican City

Of course I mentioned that Rome was a buy-one-get-one free affair. We didn’t just come for Rome. I had also wanted to see the seat of the Catholic Church, just because it looks spectacular and has been shown in many films. While small, it will still take some time to explore all of it. There are three main bits to consider. The Square, The Basilica and the Museum. The Square is free to enter and wander around. You’ll no doubt see the queue for the Basilica slowly shuffling around. Be warned that a road does run through it though and I almost got run down a couple of times. My advice is if you’re not inside the ring of columns then you’re still liable to get run over. There are little to no road markings here. There is very little in the square other than cobbles, a couple of fountains and the obelisk but you can get some cracking photos from around the area of the Basilica and of the intricacy of the statues that adorn the outer ring of the square. The Basilica I cannot comment on as we didn’t head in there but the museums are excellent. More artwork than I’ve ever seen assembled in one place. Unsurprisingly pretty much all of it is inspired by the tales found in the Bible though one of St. George and the dragon crept in there somehow – see if you can find it. The grounds are also great, with some brilliant shots of the Basilica. My favourite part aside from the gardens was the Galleria delle Carte Geografiche. A long hallway adorned with maps of early Italy and Europe. A must for map lovers like me. It still baffles me how early cartographers were able to so accurately map the world. You’ll see many of these hallways and eventually you’ll arrive at what everyone has come to see. The Sistine Chapel. It was much bigger or at least the ceiling was higher than I imagined it would be. There are strictly NO photos allowed so I wouldn’t even bother getting your camera out. Even if you could, you wouldn’t be able to, the room is rammed with everyone looking up to see the ceiling painted by Michaelangelo centuries ago, it has to be said that it is a marvelous piece of work, but by this stage I was pretty fed up. The number of people was staggering and every few seconds you’d get pushed by someone, or large groups would fill the corridors and move very very slowly; or worse yet they would stop right in front of you to take a selfie. I’m not against selfies, outdoors with famous sites or with amazing vistas, by all means go for it, but in the confines of the Vatican halls, with thousands of others stopping to take a selfie with a single urn seems a little strange and to be me a little inconsiderate especially considering they stop at every urn and there are many many urns. However, you can easily spend a few good hours in here and if you don’t mind getting tossed around like a fruit salad by people then spend even more. I will say this though I cannot recommend enough that you get your tickets in advance. Otherwise you may spend well over an hour cooking in the sun unlike the 10 minutes we did and be prepared for airport style security. Just remember you are technically entering another country. No passports needed though! Information and purchasing options for the Vatican Museums can be found on the Musei Vaticani website. There isn’t, for me at least, a huge amount to say about the Vatican, it speaks for itself really and the museums can easily captivate you for hours. I’d imagine that when mass is taking place though it must be something spectacular even for an atheist like myself. If you are interested in viewing a Papal Mass then tickets and information can be found here. I probably would have gone if there had been one on at the time. Some of the larger Masses are conducted in the square when the Basilica cannot hold the expected crowds. Considering that the Basilica holds 15,000 people (wow!) that says something about how important Catholicism is to some Romans and tourists.

All in all, Rome and the Vatican were really enjoyable. The crowds put a bit of a dampener on the festivities at the Vatican though. That said it was August so peak summer season for tourists. In Rome though that’s down time. Most Romans leave the city for more coastal climes and the streets are actually pretty quiet. If that is your sort of thing then perhaps August is a good time to go. Just check dates as some places such as restaurants will be closed. Another thing to consider is the weather. Rome is not coastal but it isn’t far from the coast (Fiumicino Airport is coastal). The heat is hot (we pushed upwards of 36°c) and you can get some spectacular storms rolling in off the Mediterranean. In fact I think the sound of the thunder and the lightning is more impressive than any storm I’ve seen before and the accompanying rain is outrageous, it was so heavy I was soaked within seconds. Rome is somewhere I’d go back to and explore some more and I’d recommend that you go too. For such a small city there is plenty to do and history geeks will love it. If you’ve got any questions with regards to Rome, just give me a bell.

Jon

Cover Photo: One of the many angel statues on the Ponte Sant’Angelo.

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