Rome has been on my list of places I want to go for a long time. I’ve been to Italy a few times, visiting Venice, Florence, Pisa, Naples and Pompeii, but never Rome. This year, I decided to rectify that and take a short city break to the capital. Once I arrived, I only had two-and-a-half days for sightseeing, but with help from a guidebook, I had already planned things out.
I was afraid of being the most obvious tourist in the city with my backpack, baseball cap and sunglasses, but of course there were plenty more. Using the metro system wasn’t difficult; I even ended up helping an Australian couple who were a bit more befuddled by it. When walking around, however, you had to keep your wits about you. Traffic was constant and unpredictable: the appearance of the little green man at a crossing was not necessarily a guarantee that a car or moped wouldn’t cross your path. And I had to pull out my map a lot, as there were plenty of side streets to get lost in. What certainly weren’t hard to find, happily, were pizzerias and gelaterias; I enthusiastically made use of both.
The first place that I visited was the Pantheon, a church which was previously a Roman temple, dating from 126 AD. What blew me away as I stepped inside was the size of the dome, or at least how large it felt; its height and its diameter are exactly the same, 43 metres.
From there, I walked to Piazza Navona, recommended by my guidebook as a particularly attractive square. It certainly didn’t disappoint. At the centre was the Fountain of the Four Rivers, designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1651. The central obelisk is surrounded by four figures who represent major rivers from the different continents: the Danube in Europe, the Nile in Africa, the Ganges in Asia, and the Rio de la Plata in the Americas. One thing I really loved about a lot of the artwork I saw in Rome was how so many little details had deeper meaning: for example, the figure representing the Nile is hiding his face, because the source of the Nile was unknown when the fountain was constructed. Close by where I sat as I looked at the fountain, a man was playing an accordion, and I felt a true sense of where I was.
I then walked towards the River Tiber, crossing the Ponte Sisto from which I could see the dome of St Peter’s Basilica, and into the neighbourhood of Trastevere. My aim was to get up Gianicolo Hill, which was supposed to offer a great view of the city. It was a long climb, which might have been even more difficult if not for all that running I’ve done in the last few months! And it was indeed a lovely view at the top, which granted me my first look at the far-off Colosseum. I also made sure to check out the northern side of the hill for a closer look at St Peter’s.
It was around 5:30pm when I started heading back down, so I stopped at a pizzeria in Trastavere, before heading into a nearby gelateria and getting a Snickers-flavoured ice cream cone. As I ate my ice cream standing on the Ponte Sisto, with a street musician playing ‘La Bomba’ on an electric guitar in the background, I enjoyed a feeling of great contentment. This was in spite of the fact that I wasn’t quite sure how to get back to my hotel; I didn’t feel capable of walking back all the way that I had come, there were no metro stations in the neighbourhood, and if I took the bus, I couldn’t trust myself to make the right transfers. I decided to walk to what looked like the nearest metro station, beside the Colosseum. I was glad I did this, as it took me right past the Roman Forum, and allowed me to see the Colosseum close up before I finally headed underground and back to my hotel for a rest.
For Day 2, I had already booked a tour in Vatican City, the smallest independent state in the world. As I followed the rather imposing walls of the city towards the entrance of the Musei Vaticani, I turned a corner and found the pavement divided in two, with one side to direct people who already had reservations and so could avoid the main queue; it was well organised. The tour began with the Vatican Museums, which you have to go through if you want to see the most famous part, the Sistine Chapel. Since it is prohibited to take photographs or speak inside the Sistine Chapel, our tour guide gave us the history of that part first, before we entered the museums.
The museums had some truly spectacular artwork. I especially liked the ancient Roman artefacts in the Museo Pio-Clementino; the Gallery of Maps, which features frescos of different regions of Italy along with a beautiful ceiling; and the Raphael Rooms, which feature colourful frescos by Raphael himself. The guide pointed out artistic features used by Raphael which were unique at the time, such as depicting light reflecting off a surface.
Then we got to the Sistine Chapel itself, which is smaller than you might expect: 41 metres long, the same size as the biblical Temple of Solomon. As explained to us at the beginning of the tour, the side walls feature frescos of biblical scenes by a variety of artists; there is a depiction of the Last Supper among these, but it’s not the Leonardo da Vinci version, which is actually in Milan. The ceiling, which depicts scenes from Genesis (including the famous image of God creating Adam), and the Last Judgment on the far wall, is the work of Michelangelo. Again, the tour guide had noted features of the artist’s style that would become influential: while the frescos emphasise their detailed and colourful backgrounds, Michelangelo’s images place more focus on having the figures pose and twist in realistic, dynamic ways. I thought that the first few images of God creating the Earth gave an especially impressive sense of power and movement. It was certainly great to see.
The tour ended in St Peter’s Basilica, another breathtakingly lavish building. My favourite thing in here was the Pieta, a sculpture by Michelangelo of Mary holding the body of Jesus. It is protected behind bulletproof glass, after a crazy man attacked it with a hammer in 1972. There were also lots of impressive monuments to Popes, and – rather unnervingly – a few deceased Popes themselves, on display in glass cases, their bodies embalmed and faces covered by wax.
With the tour over, I left Vatican City and went to check out other notable places in the northern part of the city centre. I went to the park area Villa Borghese, though I didn’t stay long as there wasn’t that much to see there. Then I went south to the Spanish Steps, making sure to climb them despite how tired I was after all that walking around the museums. Finally, I headed to the Trevi Fountain, which is actually quite hidden away compared to other landmarks in the city. The space around it isn’t that big, and was extremely crowded with tourists; it was the only place I found where the crowding felt really oppressive. A little down-hearted by this, I didn’t bother to throw a coin in.
The final day would be dedicated to exploring ancient Rome, one of my favourite historical subjects and my main motivation for wanting to see the city. The Colosseum, Roman Forum and Imperial Forums are located in the same area, and an admission ticket is valid for both the Colosseum and Roman Forum. The tour I’d booked for the Colosseum was scheduled for after 12, so I went exploring the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill first. One of the seven hills of Rome, Palatine Hill features the palace of the Emperor Domitian, including what looks like a small-scale stadium for horse racing, but was actually a garden. The Forum, once the heart of the city, was full of amazing temples and other remains. Down the road from this site, the remains of other Imperial Forums could be seen from the street, including those of Augustus and Trajan.
And then there was the Colosseum. One thing I hadn’t known was that the name ‘Colosseum’ was given to it in medieval times; the Romans originally called it ‘Amphitheatrum Flavium’. What remains of the structure today is a skeleton; much of its material was used for building churches in later centuries. It used to be covered in white marble, of which there are still remnants in a few spots. Our tour took us to areas where tourists don’t otherwise go, such as the underground area, which is exposed today but would have been beneath the timber floor of the arena when it was in use. Those entering the arena would do so via trapdoors operated by slaves and counterweights; on a typical day, shows involving wild animals would take place in the morning, and the gladiators would fight in the afternoon. Following this, we climbed up to the third and highest ring of the Colosseum, where the plebs would have sat; the lower your social class, the higher you sat and the further you were from the action.
So, in two-and-a-half fast-paced days, I managed to see just about everything I wanted of Rome, and I enjoyed it very much. Coming in September was a good decision: it was warm and sunny without ever being uncomfortable, and the crowds were mostly manageable. Aside from needing to dodge traffic every now and then, I really liked Rome as a place too. It had a very nice atmosphere and out of all the places I’ve been to in Italy, I would say it’s my favourite.