By AJ Williams
If you’re going to cover a lot of territory while on a ‘quick trip to’ a city with as much to see as Rome, there really are two ‘musts’. First – plan to take the open air ‘Hop On, Hop Off’ bus. We do this in every large city we visit and it’s a fantastic way to get your bearings. You’ll also likely get a great tour guide who can tell you all the interesting tidbits.
Sit up top (they’re usually double deckers) so you can enjoy the view and really see the city. Second, hire a private guide. It’s not that expensive, and worth every penny. We used www.maximustours.com Our first tour was the 3 hour one ‘Ancient Rome’. Our tour guide, Vanessa, will forget more about Roman history than any of us could ever remember. First stop: The Forum, with its Victory arches, public square, palaces, the justice hall, and the home of the Vestal Virgins and so much more. We then made our way over to the Coliseum…..and even though you’ve seen it on TV, when it comes into focus in person, it truly takes your breath away.
The Coliseum is a marvel, in every way (and some not too good)….. From an Engineering perspective it’s amazing. It was built, they believe, by Jewish slaves who were brought here, and was constructed out of brick, travertine, marble and wood. Deluxe – and a complex system of underground tunnels and passageways that were used by the performers to get ready for shows and matches. When it was their turn to perform, they’d be moved up to the stage on one of 60 elevators. Not like today’s elevators – some poor sod had to crank them up from below, but the complexity of the system is mind-boggling. Much of the entertainment was absolutely barbaric! The theory by the Emperor and government was that if you gave the people free grain, and free entertainment, you could pretty much do whatever you wanted with the running of the country and they wouldn’t bother you much. They had all kinds of horrible, man vs. beast fights in there, and public executions, etc. If you haven’t seen it in a while, re-watch “Gladiator”. Vanessa says it’s one of the most accurate depictions of what the Gladiatorial matches were like at the Coliseum back then. If you had to be a slave, being chosen to be a Gladiator was actually pretty good. You might die anyway, but unlike the other slaves, your owner would have to feed & care for you fairly well in order for you to be fit & strong so you could win bouts. Occasionally, they’d have a match where they’d tell the gladiators that the winners would gain freedom. Imagine how hard they fought then! Oh, and the Coliseum actually had a retractable roof on it! It was designed with huge pieces of fabric, like sails, hoisted open or closed on a pulley system with cables that went all around the outside of the building, and again, some poor buggers who had to winch them up. Amazing. It was raining pretty good by the time we headed out, so we made our way back to the flat to change into dry clothes and set out in search of some more amazing food….and vino of course! We chose Ristorante Alla Rampa, a busy but inviting spot (www.allarampa.it). The aromas of Italy were waiting inside for us! I love the way the Italians eat…and while it seems like there are a lot of courses, they’re all perfectly portioned, so you don’t feel stuffed when you’re finished. We started with the Risotto Funghi. I recommend sharing a starter. Risotto is a first course here, after a salad if you choose to have one. It’s a smaller portion to get your tastebuds in gear. Then onto the Osso Bucco. My mouth literally waters just writing about it! But…..we finished off with the Tiramisu…served ‘family style’ in that Sergio showed up with a big lasagna pan full of it and chunked off a big piece and slid it onto a plate with a large spatula. The cake layer was delicious, but the Cream on the top was out of this world. It was absolutely like velvet on your tongue!
The next day, we continued on our adventures with our Vatican Tour and the remainder of the Forum that was rained out the day before. When you’re entering the Vatican, you are entering another country (The Vatican State), and while you don’t need a passport, you do need to go through security. The funny part is that just like at the airport, you put your stuff on the conveyor belt, and walk through the scanner, but the Italian guards who work there aren’t even looking at anything, so you can pretty much just pass on through! On an average day, over 20,000 people come here. At 19 Euros a pop – do the math. It’s huge business! It’s overwhelming to think of navigating the Vatican museum yourself, so Vanessa was a godsend. The art collection is massive: Sculptures, paintings, tapestries, frescos, and the list goes on. You’ll see the Pieta, the only work Michelangelo ever signed.
We learned that the early church was open to artists and nudes were common. Then they got all prim & proper, and the fig leaf era was born. The pope of the day had all the penises removed from the statues, or had them covered with sculpted or gilded fig leaves to cover the nudity! If you were in the fig leaf business then, you had it made! Be sure to see the Vatican gardens and the Sistine Chapel (smaller than I was expecting, but breathtaking).We then made our way to St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s the largest church in the world, and you know it when you go in there. The popes are all entombed somewhere in there (below the church), and a few are supposedly ‘bronzed’ and in tombs in the main part of the church. Like Pope Innocent II, who we saw in his glass tomb. The more interesting part of his story is the obvious Karma. You see, he’s the Pope who had all those ‘anatomically correct’ body parts chopped off statues. Unfortunately for him, when he died, they made this fancy glass & gilded tomb for him. But they made it too small, so he looks a little odd in there….and then we found out why. In order to make his body ‘fit’, they had to take about 6 inches or so off his legs, then stick his shoes back on. Ew! Remember – measure twice, cut once.
The Pope (and indeed the entire Vatican), if you’re unaware, is guarded by the ‘Swiss Guards’. Why them? Well, they were chosen because they’re neutral, loyal, and some of the best trained military in the world. Apparently you also needed to look good in tights and bright colours.
We finished up our tour back at the Forum, walking along the ancient road of the Triumphal arches, just as the emperors did thousands of years ago. Most of the large paving stones are original, which is amazing. We truly walked where Julius Caesar, Hadrian, and many others walked. Still gives me goosebumps.
We enjoyed dinner at Sant’Andrea Restaurant, http://www.ristorantesantandrea9.it near the Spanish Steps. Starters to share of Caprese Salad and cured, dried beef & parmesan drizzled with fabulous olive oil. Then I had the Vitella a la Limone (what can I say – being a judge for the world championship of Veal Picatta is a burden, but must be done). Vanessa told us – lasagna is the best way to truly judge the merits of an Italian restaurant – because if they get it right, it means they can make great pasta, and a great sauce so my husband tried the lasagna and it didn’t disappoint)
We had a ‘free day’ on our last day in the eternal city, with no scheduled tours. We were a bit disappointed in that we tried to get into the Borghese Museum, but were unsuccessful. They make you reserve ahead and give you a two-hour block of time to see the Museum, but they had no openings, so it’ll have to be something to do on another trip. Instead, we got up & made breakfast at the flat (www.friendlyrentals.com – Orfeo apartment), then ventured out to see the last few ‘musts’ on our list. First stop – the breathtaking Trevi Fountain. We then stumbled upon another Church, San Silvestre, which was also amazing. While St. Peter’s Basilica was epic, this smaller church was more approachable, and the artworks were tremendous. The only other ‘must’ on our list was the Piazza de Navona, a very large square, full of an interesting combination of politicians, business people and artists. This area of Rome is the financial and government headquarters in Italy. The piazza is dotted with local artists selling their paintings, which were quite good. We then made our way to the last big ‘must’ on our Roman List, the Pantheon, which dates back to the 6th Century. It’s very imposing columns along the front of the building are unmistakable. The Greeks built similar buildings, but in the Greek style, the columns go all the way around the building, in Roman architecture, they’re only on the front of the building. This amazing building has since been turned into a Church, so they occasionally need to remind visitors of that, and tell everyone to ‘shhh….’. Inside, you’re under an impressive dome, with a large, round hole in the roof. It’s open, and of course my first thought was, ‘What happens with it rains?’ I thought perhaps it was covered in glass, but no, it’s open to the elements, and in fact, that hole is the sole light source for the Pantheon too. When it rains, there are drain holes in the marble floor directly below the roof, so the water just goes down there. Smart. More Roman Engineering brilliance.
Rome is a city everyone should visit it at least once. A week would be enough – and I would recommend staying somewhere fairly close to the Spanish Steps – a good, central location so you can walk to all of the most significant sights. It’s humbling really, and may just make you wish you’d paid attention a little more in history class.
Your first visit to Rome is like a first date – and will give you the requisite butterflies, with a wish for another evening together.