A September 2003 trip
to Rome by jaybroek
Quote: Rome was the third stop in our Grand Italian Honeymoon Tour. Three days to capture something of the essence of the Eternal City--a little wandering, a spot of light ‘awe and wonder’, and plenty of fine food and drink interspersed liberally throughout the day.
Rome is an experience - as a modern European capital it is breathtaking with its fashionable stores around the Piazza La Spagna and its residents just dripping with cool. And they seem too cool to notice the plethora of classical remains that litter their city. The Forum made the most lasting impression on me but then I like my ruins to look like ruins!!
And then there's Christian Rome and Baroque Rome and Renaissance Rome - so much to see that I opted to make the Vatican a separate journal. Now that is a highlight, Christian or not.
Whatever you do, find yourself time to gaze back over the city from the Villa Borghese - a chance to pause and enjoy the magnificent cityscape.
It is worth getting the audio tour where available - the Colosseum experience is significantly enhanced - or loitering around the edge of a tour group at critical moments. A full tour of a couple of hours is a little too much, even for this 'emperor of monuments'.
Please don't rush - you just won't enjoy it as much. Get an ice cream, enjoy loitering in piazzas and join in the passeggiata - a daily ritual where locals take the evening air en masse, chatting with family and friends, seeing and being seen . This is Rome; its eternal and it'll still be here when you come back. And you will.
We used the extremely efficient, punctual and affordable rail system to get to Rome from Siena, arriving at the sizeable Stazione Termini (which doubles as a major bus depot). Getting out of Rome on a Saturday proved to be slightly less straightforward as we made for Ciampino airport to pick up a car. Use the metro out to the end of the line at Anagnina and hang around for the hourly bus.
The metro is designed for getting commuters into the city as it obviously has to skirt round all the archeological remains, making it of limited use for visitors. There are stations near the Spanish steps, the Vatican and Stazione termini but that's about it for central Rome. But hey, you'll miss so much underground!
Now, call me naïve but up until this trip to Italy I have only ever come across hotels that occupied whole buildings – you went in the door and there you were. This is clearly not the case here. I never quite got to grips with how much of this building was the Hotel Miami…I like to think they were taking it over by stealth (woe betide the resident who takes a long weekend and asks the guy in the lobby to water his plants). A small corner of the ground floor is given over to a smart little reception where we were welcomed by the double act of Dario and Mario. Excellent English is spoken here and we were escorted up to the third floor, past some accountants, architects and the like to a clutch of half a dozen or so rooms behind a CCTV-monitored main door.
The room was pretty much everything you could want – a large double bed, plenty of wardrobe space and a clean, well-appointed bathroom. The air conditioning liked to be noticed although a wedge of paper stuffed in the right place soon quieted it down. An inexpensive mini bar was also available although there are plenty of shops nearby where a chilled aperitif (for that post-sightseeing pre-dining breather) can be bought much more cheaply and brought back to your room.
The layout of the building and the hotel’s ‘dispersed’ nature within it means that breakfast is something of a voyage of discovery. Down to the ground floor on our side of the building, across the lobby and up the other side to the sixth floor seems to be the quickest route. Frankly it’s not really worth it. Italian hotels don’t seem to have got to grips with breakfast – watery juice, a selection of pastries and some sorry looking ham doesn’t quite make for the energising start Rome demands. But that’s OK – Italians don’t really ‘do’ breakfast beyond a quick espresso and a brioche – I can go native for a few weeks. The thing that does surprise me though is that, in a country that worships the bean, tourist hotels can’t put a decent cup of coffee together. The Blonde does not function at all well pre-caffeine and I hold the hotel wholly responsible for a few ‘heated debates’ as we wandered in search of the required top-up.
This is a nice hotel – it is convenient for the station and it’s well placed for many of Rome’s major sights. It isn’t cheap but if you want to stay near the centre and not have to share your toilet . . .
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on October 30, 2003
VIA NAZIONALE 230
Rome, Italy 00184
Restaurant | "La Pigna"
With a front terrace seemingly plonked down in the middle of a scooter park, La Pigna proved to be an oasis of calm. The few tables outside were populated with business lunchers and the waiter seemed a little surprised by the arrival of a couple of smiling travellers with time on their hands. I suffered my usual bout of inadequacy in an Italian restaurant as we had deigned to ware comfortable clothes as opposed to tight trousers, sparkling loafers, a pristine shirt and sweater nattily knotted around the neck. As usual, the sensation passed with the first glass of vino rosso.
The menu was typically lengthy with a wide array of antipasti, first courses, second courses and pizzas. Don’t feel you have to have all the courses…unless you want to of course. The Blonde made a beeline for the antipasto misto – an excuse to sample pretty much everything the restaurant has to offer in the way of cold meat, vegetables, mozzarella and often fish too. I opted for a half portion of ravioli – a common option in Italian restaurants for those faint-hearted English types with just no stamina (or a desire to be able to walk in the afternoon). Both proved to be delicious – the mixed antipasto is safely the Blonde’s lunch of choice.
Our main courses were equally splendid. The Blonde made short work of the safe old standby, grilled Calamari, while I opted for spicy Polpettine. These small meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce were brought to the table by a grinning old chef who seemed to indicate how impressed he was with my choice. I chose to interpret it this way, assuming I had selected his particular favourite and he just had to come out of the kitchen to greet this English connoisseur personally. Of course there’s always the chance that he was more interested in chuckling at the foolish foreigner who had no idea what he’d put in these offal-based delights. I prefer not to dwell on the latter.
We stretched this fine lunch out with a half litre of very drinkable house wine. I started to get a little concerned for local business productivity, as there seemed to be little hurry back to the office. But that’s the way it’s done in most of continental Europe and I’m doing everything I can to encourage the practice back home! If you find yourself in this part of Rome at lunchtime you could do very much worse.
Ristorante La Pigna
Piazza Della Pigna, 54
Under the straightforward rules of holiday eating laid down by the Blonde, we must eat outside. My selection of the Ricci family pizzeria on Via Genova flew in the face of this principle but I had a good feeling about it as soon as we walked in. The restaurant is wonderfully authentic – it has been in the Ricci family since 1905. The outside has the look of a corner bar in New York or London; frosted glass and heavy dark wood. The theme is continued inside with dark wood partitions creating intimate dining areas. The walls are half panelled and adorned with black and white images of the restaurant over the years (not much has changed). I half-expected to see groups of men in pin stripe suits looking suspiciously at each other with napkins tucked in their shirts and violin cases under the table. I must stop watching those movies.
It was a bustling Friday night but we were fitted in near the small bar area in the main room and quickly got tucked in to a fine bottle of Est!Est!Est! – something of a favourite white wine in these parts. The main room is non-smoking - a back room looks after the needs of the smoker.
The Blonde quickly honed in on the mixed antipasto – a reliable favourite needed to remove unpleasant memories of lunch. It served the purpose although it wasn’t as sizeable as some. I opted for a couple of strips of battered fried cod. The fish was so delicate and fresh . . . it made a surprisingly good appetiser. Pizzas are very much the order of the day here (the clue is in the name ‘pizzeria’) although there are limited other choices, mainly involving pasta.
Ricci’s has a reputation for pizzas leaning towards the small but, after a week of dining in restaurants twice or three times a day, this sounded like a major boon rather than a criticism. The Blonde opted for the Calzone and was presented with what looked like a substantial piece of pizza architecture – stuffed to the limit with prosciutto and other goodies. I went for the Diavollo . . . I like my food to sound a little dangerous. It was extremely good with those little pools of chillied olive oil on the surface.
The atmosphere is great, the food is delicious and the espressos, although slowly delivered, rounded things off perfectly. This was certainly my favourite restaurant in Rome although the Blonde, oh so difficult to please, rued the lack of a terrace.
Picky, picky, picky.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on October 30, 2003
Attraction | "The Colosseum"
There's no doubt about it, the Colosseum is incredible. We approached down the Via dei fori Imperiali - an ugly boulevard built by Mussolini and carving through ancient ruins with seemingly little thought for their preservation. The area immediately to the west of the arena has been paved so the risk to life and limb of approaching the Colosseum has been significantly reduced.
Getting around to the entrance involves dodging a large number of beefy Centurions offering to be photographed with you for a small fee - just as soon as they've finished their cigarette break at least. The Colosseum was originally designed and built to enable an audience of 70,000 to enter or leave in a matter of minutes. With 2,000 years of progress it now takes significantly longer, particularly if you want to pick up an audio guide too.
As a little aside, it's at the ticket counter that The Blonde started referring to me as 'The Calvinist'. She feels that I thrive on punishing myself and 'going without' and she may have a point. Whenever I'm asked if I want extras that I may have to pay for, however beneficial they may be, I automatically say 'no'. It's not as if an extra 4 euros for an audio guide or booklet will break the bank - I blurt out 'no'. I blame my father.
That's the rather long-winded way of saying - get the audio guide, it's a good thing.
So what can I say about the Colosseum that hasn?t been said before? It isn't smaller in real life; it is epic in proportion and design with the classical columns and arches that have inspired so many imitations. It doesn't disappoint; it takes little imagination to complete the oval stadium, populate it with a baying crowd of toga-wearing Romans and mentally recreate the visual spectacle of the games (thanks, Russell Crowe, Kirk Douglas et al.). After its completion around 80AD, the Colosseum played host to 100 continuous days of games - a fact that generates a host of questions. How do you get that much time off work? Were there season tickets? Surely everyone starts to get a bit blase and 'gamed out' after a while? Would a gladiator, coming out to a half empty arena just after lunch, feel a bit deflated and his performance suffer accordingly? I definitely should've got the audio guide.
I don't have to persuade you to see the Colosseum. Frankly, it would be somewhat remiss of you to neglect to visit. I don't think it will hold you for much longer than an hour or so unless you're tied in to a tour but it will remain in your memory for a long, long time. And the smell that lingers too? I think its cat wee.
Piazza Del Colosseo
Rome, Italy 00184
+39 (06) 7004261
Attraction | "The Forum"
The Roman Forum largely fills the space between the Colosseum and the enormous, starkly white marble bulk of the Vittorio Emanuele II monument. Covering five acres, it is what’s left of the very heart of Ancient Rome and its vast empire. Generations of inhabitants have picked off the nicer pieces of stone and marble for building projects elsewhere (it would be fascinating to track all the pieces down) leaving properly ruined ruins.
We shunned the opportunity to take a guided tour (having just got married, I need something else to be commitment-phobic about) in favour of self-navigation. The Forum does not favour you in this respect as few signs or plaques can be found. Most good guidebooks, however, have maps and excellent descriptions of the Forum and you should be able to orientate yourself.
Amongst the low, crumbling walls and stumps of once-proud columns there are some stunning highlights which give you a flavour of the priorities of Ancient Rome and seemed to have formed a template for most civilisations since. Two triumphal arches stand at either end of the Via Sacra; the Arch of Titus forms a magnificent entry point from the direction of the Colosseum while the Arch of Septimus Severus, with its boastful friezes celebrating military power and domination, stands tall at the northern end.
The remains that had the greatest visual impact though, were the isolated rows of Corinthian columns. They manage to appear both fragile and indestructible at the same time - all that’s left of once-grand temples. They make an arresting sight against the blue sky.
The Forum has returned to being a place of bustle and human traffic. Once the centre for trading, worship, politics, public gathering and speaking, it is now packed to the gills with tourists. And rightly so – it is one of the few historic sites of this magnitude that are free to enjoy 9a few euros for a tour). There are some pleasant spots to sit and contemplate – I recommend under the trees facing the Temple of Romulus. If you listen closely you may even hear Caesar’s last cry rising into the still air – or that may be one of the tour guides getting a little over-theatrial in the temple to Julius Caesar.
I shall return and savour this place again.
Largo Romolo e Remo
Rome, Italy 00186
Attraction | "The Pantheon"
The Pantheon one sees today is the reconstruction of a 27BC temple designed by Marcus Agrippa. It dates from 125AD (‘it’s a repro, I knew it! It looks far too new to be 27BC!’) and leaves one marvelling at the quality of its preservation. This is a complete building, heading towards 1900 years old and you can’t fail to be blown away by the architectural and engineering genius that went into its construction. Its consecration as a Catholic Church in the 7th century certainly contributed to its longevity. The bus shelter in my village isn’t one year old yet and it looks set to fall down already (mind you I wouldn’t fancy the Pantheon’s chances if our local teenagers got near it).
The Piazza della Rotunda is an extremely pleasant square with the obligatory fountain and column and well stocked with expensive pavement cafes (there is also, if you look carefully, a remarkably tasteful McDonalds directly opposite the Pantheon’s grand façade). The piazza is pedestrianised and full of people staring at the Pantheon. This ancient Roman structure demands this contemplative, open-mouthed, slightly dopey-looking preparation. The portico that fronts the rotunda is a forest of granite – three rows of eight, fourteen metre high Corinthian columns guard the doorway. Step back far enough, as you surely will trying to capture the photo, and you will see the dome rising behind the entablature. One of the first domes ever attempted, it is a hugely ambitious 43 metres in diameter and is made from progressively thinner, lighter rings of pumice-based concrete. No-one built one bigger until the 15th century. Wow.
Finally you must reunite your upper and lower jaws and enter (remembering to remove your hat – this is a church now!). Despite the inevitable crowds one’s first sensation is that of cool, open space. The interior is as high as it is wide, a great cylinder of porphyrite and granite; cool reddy browns, greys and creams make this a surprisingly simple, sober interior. Equally understated (as far as Roman tombs go anyway!) are the resting places of Raphael, the city’s Renaissance hero, and two Italian kings.
All this is lit from above as the sunlight streams through the 9m wide oculus – a circular hole in the ceiling that forms part of the supporting structure of the roof. It is also responsible for a lot of ‘oops, sorry’s’ as you wander round, staring straight up and walking into people (you can also get this really cool halo effect if you photograph someone from below with the oculus behind their head!).
Piazza della Rotonda
Rome, Italy 00186
Following the signs to the Trevi Fountain is a curious experience. I began to suspect the work of some nefarious Roman gang luring masses of tourists into a rabbit warren of streets that they would never escape from. And then you stumble upon a tiny square packed, and when I say packed I mean underground train-at-rush-hour packed, with tourists, all staring at this wall of gushing white extravagance. The square is arranged in terraces down to the fountain itself, slightly improving your chances of seeing the fountain in all its glory.
And it is a glorious sight. Started in the 1730s at the behest of Pope Clement XII, it is a fine example of baroque grandeur; the mighty Neptune stands overlooking an array of foaming horses, nymphs and the odd giant clamshell. The water at his feet is a distinctly unnatural blue, reminiscent of dental mouthwash. If you time your arrival badly (and I suspect that any time after dawn is a bad time), you will only be able to sit in bright sunlight. The water starts to look increasingly inviting and the whole Anita Ekberg La Dolce Vita thing looks like a good move. The Blonde and I settled for pouring handfuls of water down each other’s backs in a most mature fashion and chucked the obligatory coin in to guarantee our return.
So, once you’ve sat by it a while you can follow the crowds a few hundred yards to the north and the Piazza di Spagna, home of the Spanish Steps. The route north takes you deep into shoppers Rome; expensive boutiques line the streets interspersed with tourist restaurants and currency exchanges.
The hourglass-shaped piazza is centred on the Barcarria fountain, at the foot of the Spanish steps themselves. The benches surrounding the fountain are a good place to sit and get a view of the famous steps . . . and there’s not much more to say about them. The young drape themselves across the balustrades seeing and being seen in an appropriately ostentatious fashion. Everyone jostles for the perfect central position from which to capture the best snapshot. All in all it left us somewhat non-plussed.
The enclosed Piazza is home to the Keats-Shelley memorial house and is also the gathering point for horse-drawn carriages offering over-priced tours of the city (I remain distinctly unpopular for not forking out for this one). The roads leading west of the Piazza, back towards the Via del Corso warrant a meander and the odd expresso/vino break, allowing you to people-watch a while. The Via Condotti, Via della Carrozze and Via della Croce are all interspersed with designer outlets, gelateria and pavement cafés. Armani, Gucci, Ferragamo, Versace; if these names mean anything to you then this is the spot for you.
The result of our visit to the Spanish Steps was an overwhelming desire to get up and out of the crowds. If you don’t fancy climbing the steps up to 16th century Trinita dei Monti church (not wanting to climb the Spanish Steps? The sacrilege!) there is an elevator next to the entrance to the metro. The view back across the city is wonderful and you’ll find lots of guys with easels at the top of the steps that’ll agree with you. If you really want a break from the crowd take the short walk from here up to the gardens of the Villa Borghese (see other journal entry). Now, they are a delight.
In contrast to pretty much all of the rest of Rome’s landmarks, the Trevi and the Spanish Steps are as you have seen them in countless pictures. I do not doubt their aesthetic appeal for a minute but there is nothing to discover and it is hard to imagine or experience any weight of history or profound emotion. Maybe I want too much or have been spoilt by the rest of Rome and Florence too. There is no doubt that they are beautiful and I’m glad the Trevi was there to work its magic and ensure my return…but I may just give them a miss next time.
Edinburgh, United Kingdom