A September 2001 trip
to Rome by actonsteve
Quote: With the exception of Istanbul and Jerusalem, no city has been as famous or the centre of the world for so long as Rome. The Eternal city practically implodes with monuments, ruins, churches and fountains. Everyone should visit one of the most beautiful, cultured and fascinating cities in the world....
Rome will knock you sideways! You will practically trip over epic ruins, towering marble columns, gushing fountains and renaissance piazzas. Cats pad across fallen marble columns and children kick footballs up against the side of 16th century baroque churches. And you almost drown in the sheer variety of things to see and do. The great sights such as St Peter's, the Colosseum and the Trevi Fountain are world-famous for a reason - they are mindblowing.
But Rome is a city made for exploring for yourself. A forgotten corner might reveal a Boromini statue, a chuch decorated with Raphael frescoes or an Egyptian obelisque. To wander the streets of the Centro Storico with their tangerine colouring, balconied apartment blocks, tabacchis, gelaterias and stylish shops is as close to heaven as I could possibly get...
The entire city is epic.
Built on the famous seven hills only two really have any impact now - the Palatine and the Capitoline. These stand at the heart of things overlooking the ancient Roman Forum. North of the Forum is the ancient city (the Centro Storico) which contains most of the baroque sights such as Piazza Navona and the Trevi Fountain. This is bordered by Piazza di Popolo to the north and Piazza Venezia to the south. The Tiber is the western border and the Villa Borghese (Rome's major park) to the east. No building can be built bigger then St. Peter's which makes one of the most cohesive cityscapes in Europe. Any high point gives amazing vistas of the coffee coloured rooftops with the dome of the great church always dominating the horizon.
But Rome is built for idling. An afternoon spent at a pavement cafe sipping a cinzano and watching the world go by is just as rewarding as enjoying some of the greatest sights in the world.
Taxis are plentiful and reasonably priced. But most Romans drive or walk about their city. If you get the chance chat to the Romans - they are a lovely gregarious people who are very proud of their city. Rome in the 21st century creaks and rattles and sometimes shows its venerable age. But the monuments have been cleaned up, Termini is a lot safer and if it wasn't for encountering more ruins, more metro lines would be dug.
But Rome is Italy at its most charming. With monks and nuns walking the streets and water gushing from communal fountains. As Rome enters its fourth millennium it still is one of the greatest cities in the world. Maybe even the greatest...
Hotel | "Il Castello - Budget sleep in a faux castle"
Rooms start at about 75,000 lira for a single, with doubles about 110,000 lira. It caters for the backpacker trade with a dorm for 30,000 lira, however like a lot of Italy it does not accept credit cards, cash payments are preferable. The reception is staffed 24 hrs a day and the staff very pleasant. Breakfast (usually consisting of rolls, cornflakes and coffee) can be had for 5000 lira and tours of the city can be booked from reception.
It is not quite in the centre of things being south of Termini and a stroll down Via Emanuelle Filiberto to the ancient city walls and the church of San Giovanni di Laterano. But the metro is at the end of the Via and the tram on Via Manzoni takes you all the way across the Tiber. It impressed me with its security requiring all guests to return keys when they venture out. I did not feel wary leaving valuebles behind at all.
But the best thing about it was the neighbourhood. It is situated in the centre of middle-class Rome with apricot apartment blocks and streets lined with plane trees. Water fountains fed by aqueducts gush in the street, old ladies bid you ''bongiorno'' and the local church held a wedding one afternoon. As we walked past our ears strained to catch the music they were playing - yes - I''m sure that''s the theme from ''The Godfather''...
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on November 22, 2001
Via Victorio Amadeo II
Restaurant | ""Vincenzo all Lungetta" - Romance in Trastevere"
There are no metro stops leading to Trastevere. If you haven't got a car, it is best to cross one of the Tiber bridges or catch tram 8 from Largo Argentina. The main drag is Viale Trastevere which during the day is busy, but at night becomes one long queue of cars trying to find somewhere to park.
Dozens of restaurants line Viale Trastevere but some of the best are in the little piazzas or streets just off it. We found one called "Vincenzo Alla Lungetta" which was a traditional Italian restaurant with tables outside. Pizza is served with epic portions but we wanted to try dishes which were authentically Roman. The olive ascolane (olives in breadcrumb and mincemeat coats) was delicious as was the antipasto de mare (seafood hors d'houevre). But the main meals were really good - veal and tomatoes for me and my dining companion had spigola (sea bass) washed down with a nice bottle of chianti.
Anyone who knows me knows that I like collecting examples of interesting dishes from around the world - can I interest you in guanciale? (pigs cheeks cured in salt and pepper). Perhaps I will come back and try that...
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on November 22, 2001
Vincenzo all Lungetta
Via della Lungetta
Rome, as we all know, was a republic long before it was an Imperial Empire. About 600BC the aristocracy overthrew the monarchy and declared itself a republic. The republic was basically an aristocratic oligarchy where the offices of state were competed upon by a few powerful families, this was aimed to prevent the political dominace by one man. This worked well until a wolf went amongst the sheep in the guise of Julius Ceasar. He rose to become consul then the greatest Roman of them all with armies which he used to conquer Gaul, Britain and Spain. He used the armies to 'cross the Rubicon' and the republic became under the thumb of one man. His enemies assassinated him on the Ides of March and thus began the end of the republic and the start of the Empire...
Augustus (31BC to 14AD)
One of the most famous men in history. This was Ceasar's adopted nephew. When the civil wars started after Ceasar's murder Gaius Octavius, as he was known then, was still only 19. He threw in with Lepidus and Marc Anthony to destroy Caesar's enemies and the Roman world was divided between the three. But even that was too small for these giants and Marc Anthony threw in with Egypt's Queen Cleopatra. Civil war broke out anew until they were defeated at the battle of Actium in 31BC. Octavius was now sole master of the Roman world. He was a brilliant administrator and builder. Under him Rome entered its golden age with the entire empire overhauled and made profitable. In 27BC he was given the title Princeps or Imperator by the senate. Athough he paid homage to Roman democracy, he was in fact the first Emperor.
A very hard worker, he was unprepossing physically. If you have seen the film "Cleopatra", Roddy MacDowell looks almost identical to him. He was very short, often wearing lifts in his shoes, and spindly and wiry. His big problem was the imperial family. His daughter Julia was banished to a tiny island for excessive promiscuity. His wife Livia was his co-ruler. And accidents seemed to happen to those in the imperial succession - leaving her son Tiberius the only one available for the purple when Augustus died. Coincidence or a little astutely used poison?
History has misjudged Tiberius. Like most sons bullied by their mothers he was very sensitive to criticism. In later life this evolved into reclusiveness, mistrust and paranoia. But all in all he was an excellent soldier-emperor. Never too worried to go out with the troops, he felt more at home there then within the intrigues of Rome. And eventually retreated to Capri where he built a cliffside villa. Rome was ruled by his henchman Sejanus who inspired fear in the Senate. Tiberius, instead spent his time in debauchery on Capri with rumours of orgies and people being thrown from the cliff's. It was only when Sejanus threatened to take over the Emperorship then Tiberius moved against him. He and his children were murdered and blood flowed down the Senate steps at his fall from grace. Tiberius chose someone even worse to be his successor.
Something went seriously wrong with Caligula. He probably was a schizophrenic paranoiac. After the accession he fell ill and upon waking declared himself to be a god. He ruled as absolute dictator murdering Gemellus who was mean't to share the purple with him and instigating a reign of terror under his henchman Macro. To gain money from the senate he started treason-trials where the executed man left his fortune to the Emperor and even declared his racehorse to be a Roman senator. He had an affair with his sister Drusilla and the paranoia at court was so severe that most went in fear of their lives as his German guard would execute people on the spot. He was eventually assassinated by nobles in AD41.
Most famous for Robert Graves' masterpiece "I, Claudius" - he was a surprisingly effective Emperor. Probably suffering from cerebal palsy he had a pronounced stoop, dribbled, stammered and limped and fell asleep during court sessions. He was a good builder creating the great docks at Ostia and peace returned to the empire. He was, however, singularly unlucky with his wives. Caligula made him marry beautiful 15 year old Messalina whose adulteries which may be in their thousands. Only when she and Appius Silanus planned on making bid for the Emperorship did he act and she was executed in great scandal. He then married his niece the Lady Agrippina - one of the most wicked women in Rome. She waited until he aknowledged her son Nero's adoption then probably poisoned him with a plate of mushrooms.
Probably the most famous of the Emperor's. He is a good example of the hereditary system going horribly wrong. Nero's problem was that he didn't understand or care about the armies and senate of Rome. Matched with a personality that was moulded by sychophants and a murderous mother. He murdered his wife, co-ruler, second wife and mother in very bizzare fashions (one plot involved a ceiling to fall down on his mother). He only cared for the games of Rome or his own artistic ways (those that fell asleep at his recitals were banished)he fell fatally out of step with the people of his empire blaming the great fire of Rome on Christians and building the extravagant 'Golden House'. Abandoned by army, senate and people of Rome he committed suicide in AD68.
Following Nero became Vespasian whose two sons Titus and Domitian became Emperor's. Titus was an archetypecal soldier Emperor who had the misfortune of reigning during the Pompeii disaster and Domitian was an extreme paranoic eventually murdered by his wife and courtiers in an effort to save their own lives. Other Emperor's of note include Hadrian - famous for the great wall in Britain and one of a few homosexual emperor's, Marcus Aurelius who kept the German hordes at bay, Trajan who was the last to expand the empire with the destruction of the Dacians on his column and Commodus who was forgotten by the world until the film 'Gladiator' came out. Yes, he really did enter the arena, but in reality was not murdered by a fellow gladiator but by his own people, when he, like Caligula, thought he was a living god...
The Forum still lies at the centre of Rome. It now forms an archealogical park that extends over a 1/4 mile from Piazza Venezia in the north to the Colosseum in the south. The west it is bordered by the Palatine and Capitoline hills and to the east is the grand Via dei Fori Imperiale which is closed to traffic on Sundays and seperates the Forum from Trajans markets and column. It is now free and Romans use it as a cut-through on their journey's across Rome (just as they did in its heyday). There are five entrances of which I think the one to the south from the Colossum is the most impressive as you walk on huge ancient flagstones and enter the Forum through the epic Arch of Titus.
One important note is bring a good guidebook. The ruins, and there are a lot of them, are not labelled and you will not know what you are looking at. TIME OUT and ROUGH GUIDE have excellent maps and descriptions in their books. But best of all is attach yourself to a guided tour. These cost about 8,000 lira and can really bring the Forum to life. When the guide brings himself to a crescendo on the murder of Ceasar and you can envisage it yourself then you know it is money well spent.
We approached from the south where the Arch of Titus stands guard. From here you get sweeping views of the Forum (see photo). To the left are a myriad of red broken walls and ruins sweeping up to the Palatine hill. Ahead was a great open mass of arched columns, baroque domes, broken basilica's, pine and palm trees and hundreds and hundreds of ruins. It was difficult to know where to start. The scale of the place is amazing - I did not expect it to be so big; the abandoned temples and ruins dwarfed people. You could house a thousand tourists in the Forum easily. The Forum was the great marketplace, political meeting point and place of worship for the Roman Empire. Every deity had a temple here and citizens would pass this way to worship at the temple of Castor and Pollux, buy ingredients at the marketplace or vote or debate at the Senate house (Curia). All classes mixed in the Forum from Vestal virgins to the lowliest Numidian slave. You are standing at one of the centres of the world...
The Arch of Titus is probably the best place to start(see photo)and is older then the Arch of Constantine outside (we debated whether this Arch inspired all the other Arches around the world - Marble Arch in London? the Arch de Triomphe in Paris?)And the relief's of Titus' sack of Jerusalem looked well preserved. The Forum can get very hot so take advantage of the foutains that are strategically placed around and if you follow the dusty trail from the Arch it leads to the russet-red Basilica of Maxentius built to deify Constantine. The temple was vast but the octagonal ceiling was still intact. Next door was the temple of Romulus which was in a wonderful state of preservation and very byzantine looking. Another spectacular temple followed - the Temple of Antonius and Fausta. Still in a near intact state of preservation with a cracked marble portico.
The foundations of the counting house and temple of the Basilica Emilia were next door. But the most famous building in the Forum - the Curia - pulled in most of the crowds. This was where the Senate met and must be one of the most historic buildings in the world. I was surprised how small it was - how could it have held all those hundreds of senators?. At the northern end of the Forum are the most spectacular ruins - the Arch of Septimus Serverus, the Temple of Saturn and the Column of Phocas. I could not get over the size of these columns - you could easily stand on one of them with room to spare. After the immense ruins of the Temple of Castor and Pollux you have completed a circle of the Forum. There is the house of the Vestal virgins nudging onto the Palatine hill nearby. This was closed for excavations though I did glimpse the white marble statues in the garden. If a vestal broke her vows of chastity she was buried alive. Somehow I don't think they'd get many takers nowadays.
The Palatine Hill
This is one of my favourite places in Rome. Much more spacious and greener then the Forum it commands spectacular views across Rome. This was the Beverley Hills/Knightsbridge/Upper East Side of Ancient Rome. Only the most exclusive patrician families had villas and palaces on this hill. And eventually the entire flat summit was covered by the great Imperial palace of Domitian. "Palatine" gave the English language the word "Palace" and it was from here that the Emperor's governed. The walls of the great palace still stand and are so complete that you can pick out corridors, courtyards and fountains. After the Forum you could do alot worse then head uphill to the Palatine.
Nowadays there are only two entrances to the Palatine. From Via San Gregorio near the Colosseum or directly from the Forum. The entrance from the Forum is the one most people use and is reached up the path from the Arch of Titus. There is an entrance fee of 13,000 lira and take a good map, just like the Forum the Palatine is very badly labelled. The advantage of this way is that you will be travelling the main route used by the Imperial household down to the Forum. Imagine two thousand years ago centurions standing at a guardpost at the entrance to the Palatine. The Palace was just perfectly positioned away from the hoi polloi and just close enough to the Senate and Forum.
First impressions are misleading. The Palatine can look like a vast open-air park broken only by russet-red walls and ruins (see photo). But as you look around you can discern corridors, room outlines and courtyards. Alot of the ruins are as high as your neck so their outlines form corridors leading to courtyards that once gushed fountains. Rumour said that Domitian was so paranoid at the end of his reign that held had walls of polished marble so he could spot assassins. The focus for the ruins is the Museu Palatine which houses marble statues and busts found in the ruins and is definitely worth a look. But I wanted to see the Casa Livia. The Empress Livia was wife to Augustus and if you have ever seen the BBC's version of "I, Claudius" was memorably played by Sian Phillips. The Casa Liva is a little way to the west of the Museu Palatine and only consists of three rooms. The rooms however are adorned with frescoes. You can leave it to your imagination to envisage the plotting and scheming that went on in this palace.
The great palace on the Palatine eventually fell into ruin and was picked up by Renaissance families. One of these, the Farnese, created a garden dating back a thousand years. It is a nice place to relax after the ruins with fountains, bamboo groves, shrubs and grottoes. The view from the western end of the Palatine across Rome to St Peters is unbeatable and worth the admission price on its own.
The Capitoline Hill
The true heart of Rome. Where the she-wolf suckled Romulus who founded a city in his name in 753BC. In Roman times it housed the cities major temples - Minerva and Jupiter. But today houses the spectacular Musei Capitolini in a gorgeous Piazza designed by Michelangelo known as the Campidogio. Much the best reason to climb the hill as well as magnificent views across the Forum. To reach the Capitoline from the Forum head to the northwest corner and take any of the trails up through the pine trees. These should connect with the Via Della Consolozone.
In a city that doesn't lack beautiful Piazza's - the Campidogio is one of the best. It was designed by an aging Michelangelo on the orders of Pope III for a visit by the Emperor Charles V. The very same man who sacked Rome twenty years earlier - but such is politics. As you climb the cordonata the beauty of the Piazza becomes apparent. The orange baroque buildings form a perfect square and surround an equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. The tangerine of the buildings looks magnificent against the sapphire of the sky (see photo). Best of all are the colossal white marble statues of Castor and Pollux which stand guard against the ramp. This is a good place to rest and get your breath back.
If you hanker after more Roman grandeur then you must enter the Capitoline museum. Split between two buildings on the Piazza this is well-worth the 8,000 lira. Highlights for me included the frescoe of the 'Rape of the Sabine women' (which probably happened where we were standing), a green copper bust of Constantine with staring eyes and the physical symbol of Rome - the capitoline wolf. On the ground floor is a terracotta courtyard which housed fragments from an immense statue of Constantine. Going by the size of the head and feet - the statue must have been gigantic. But my tip for you is the rooftop restaurant. You can take a drink on the terrace and enjoy the cream cityscape spread around you. There is only one word to describe Rome: Glorious.
The Colosseum brings on such thoughts. It is one of those sights in Europe that surpasses expectation. I expected to go in, gaze at the arena, then come out again. I ended up spending two hours in the place. It is most visitors first stop and rightly so because it dominates the area around it. To see the towering stone building with its hundreds of niches looming over the surrounding streets is quite something. This building has survived 2,000 years in the centre of Rome. It has survived Goths, Vandals, Charles V troops and thousands of tourists who trudge around its walls. It must be one of the most perfectly preserved Roman buildings in the world. And with a little imagination you too can be transported back to the days of Commodus, Trajan and Hadrian.
Its true name is the Flavian Amphitheater. Built over the reign of three Emperors, it stands over the palace lake of Nero which was drained to form a large amphitheater. The term Colosseum came afterwards probably named after the colossal golden statue of Nero that stood nearby. This was the arena to end all arenas - the grandaddy of them all. Nothing was as grand, magnificent or violent as the Colosseum at its height. It held 70,000 spectators, and was designed so people could leave and arrive easily with the minimum of fuss. Once there they would witness thousands of deaths of men and animals. Lions were set against tigers, elephants against rhinos, bears against bulls, dogs against wolves. Many species in North Africa were driven to extinction. It sounds terrible, but admit it, you wish you could have seen it in its heyday.
You will not have any trouble finding the Colosseum. The metro station is right outside and it is at a junction of the Via Dei Fori Imperiali and Via San Gregorio. In fact a Roman friend of mine says he doesn't notice it anymore, to him it is just a traffic junction. Between it and the Forum is the Arc of Constantine and spread around them on flagstones are souvenir sellars, musicians and hundreds of tourists. Men dressed as Roman centurions amble around allowing you take take your pictures with them for a few thousand lira. But save your money for the Colosseum and get there early because the queues last all day. It costs 12,000 lira entrance or 15,000 for the guided tour. This I would advise because without a good guidebook you would miss things. But as you are queueing, take a look up - the facade is spectacular and consists of hundreds of niches which housed statues (see photo). The Colosseum is just as impressive at night and seems to glow when lit from within.
Once you get inside you can join the crowds at a viewing platform just to the left. Brownstone surrounds you and the walls simply tower above with seating supports standing in rows, hundreds and hundreds of rows. When you look down on what was once the sandy floor of the Colossum and the sun shines of hundreds of interlinking passages. To me it was a feast. It required little imagination to recreate it at its zenith. The buttressed supports holding the rows of seats were still there, the brackets holding the awnings were still visible, and the backpassage where spectators moved around was as it was. Best of all they had recreated the floor of the arena with canvas and sand overlooked by stone seats. The floor itself was fascinating, you could pick out rooms which housed scenery, props, beasts in cages and waiting gladiators.
Stairs lead up to the first terrace which if you follow its circumference gives even better views of the arena (see photo). There is a small museum is on the northern side, this is worth seeking out to put more flesh on the bones. Statues and models told the story of the Amphitheater and the games. I was surprised how many types of gladiator there was - each with the different headgear. The machinery for creating the games was recreated with models of the winches. And original white marble from the Amphitheater was on display - the place must have been gorgeous when first built. After that you can follow the terraces (the place resembles a football stadium) to where window arches give impressive views of the Forum and Arch of Constantine. Quite frankly, nothing beats the Colosseum.
San Giovanni de Laterano
This isn't just a church - this is the officially Rome's cathedral and the seat of the Bishop of Rome otherwise known as the Pope. For centuries this was the main papal residence when the old St Peters across the Tiber became too run down to provide a suitable residence. Quite simply, this is one of the most spectacular baroque churches you will ever see and its collection of holy relics is amazing. After St Peters and the Pantheon this is one of the most visited churches in Rome, and when you get there you can see why.
There has been a church on the site since the 4th century established by Constantine. It was used by the papacy until the great schism and when the pope's returned from Avignon they found it in a terrible state. In the 17th century as St Peters was spruced up into it's baroque form the same was done to San Giovanni by Borromini. To reach it take the metro to Manzoni and walk along Via Filiberto. Or more memorably walk south from the Colosseum along Via Di San Giovanni di Laterano. This is an amazing road going back 2,000 years with walled palazzo's, overgrown ruins, gelaterias and tourists galore. At it's end is Piazza di San Giovanni where an Egyptian obelisque soars into the air.
The front facade is colossal (see photo)and stretches hundreds of feet into the air. Borromini built it in white marble and topped it with fifteen statues of saints. But it is the portico which really stuns you. Before you enter the church look up at the gold embossed ceiling and ten foot statue of Constantine at one end. And as for the doors - take a good look - you are now examining the doors taken from the Curia (Senate House) in the Roman Forum. What museum in the world wouldn't like to get their hands on them..
The interior is so overwhelming that I saw a tourist backed up against the wall so that his eys could comprehend the vast nave. Boromini decked out the church in high baroque. At the far end is the Pieta (see photo) which stands over the altar and offset with gold and murals. The ceiling was octagonal and glittered in gilt and the frescoes were literally heavenly. The Pieta is worth a good look - a golden memorial with two effigies of St Peter and St Paul. This is not just for show - the heads of the two saints reside somewhere in the church. And below was a candle-pit with an effigy of St James (San Giovanni)- this church has more relics then most countries.
My favourite, though, was the statuary in the chancel - 20ft white marble statues of the saints (see photo). They glared like agonising titans at the worshippers below them. All in all, a stunning church. But what else can you expect from gods representative on earth.
Chies di San Clemente
to outside appearances San Clemente can seem a disapointment. It's tangerine colour is defaced by graffiti (Rome stunned me in how much graffiti there was). But get inside, or to be more precise, get underground, and you will see the layer upon layer of history that this fabulous city has accumulated. If you ever want proof of the antiquity of Rome then a visit here is a must. And the site itself goes back to Domitian, though there is evidence that it was used as an arms store for gladiators in Nero's time. It is named after the third pope, San Clemente, in AD90 and its foundations and underground chapels go back to this time. You will not get closer to the history of Rome then this church.
It is situated along Via di San Giovanni di Laterano not far south of the Colosseum. The interior is nothing special, the usual white baroque with white ceiling and gold altar. Frescoes by Masolino adorn the walls and the presence of nuns and priests confirm the churches holiness. The adjoining courtyard is very lovely with columned loggia, a fountain and a baroque facade.
But it is what is below the church which makes it so special. Dark stone passageways lead down to a Christian Titulus (chapel) that goes back to the 4th century. Orthodox frescoes adorn the walls lit by flickering lamplight and the Tiber can be heard rushing beneath the floor. Even deeper in the underground passageways is an underground chapel to Mithras (the bull fertility god) going back to the 2nd century. Through a small slit you can view stone pews and a statue of a man killing a bull. But I loved wandering the dark stone catacombs. You got a timeless sense of age down here with the musty smell, bleak lighting and echoeing footsteps.
There is so much in this area that I have broken it into three journals. This one covers the northern section of Piazza del Popolo (the old entrance to the city), The Mausaleom of Augustus and every Italian teenagers fantasy - The Spanish Steps. But also try not to forget that this small area is the heart of the Italian republic. The President is at the Quirinal. Lawyers and civil servants wear Armani suits while driving mopeds, women too chic to live shop on the Via Condotti and hordes of teenagers come up from the suburbs to ogle the signoria's on the world-famous Spanish Steps.
The best place to begin, I think, is the Piazza del Popolo. Reached by the Flaminio metro or any bus from northern Rome - this is the best introduction to the city. From here you can head south and eventually hit the Piazza Venezia or west to the Tiber. But the most workaday and least touristy is the area around the Piazza and is probably the best place to enjoy Rome without the tourists.
As you emerge from Flaminio metro you will be greeted by office-blocks and a small market. On the south side is the huge marble baroque gateway, the Porta del Popolo. For hundreds of years as the city hid behind its walls, this was the first glimpse of the city that most travellers got. You can imagine the Grand tourists trotting through at the end of their journey. The Piazza del Popolo on the other side is one of the great vista's of Rome and you cannot help but stop and say wow! This grey square is the size of a football pitch overlooked by two domed baroque churches - Santa Maria de Miracoli and Santa Maria de Montesanti. From this point three avenues raditate out southwards like a trident cutting through the Centro Storico. The Great Via dei Corso runs arrow straight for a mile and the flambuoyant Victor Emanuelle monument can be seen at its end.
The Piazza itself is dominated by another giant Egyptian obelisque reaching into the sky and is surrounded by lion statues spewing water. If you can catch this on a sunny day the contrast of the white marble against the azure sky is breathtaking. If you want even better views then on the eastern side the Villa Borghese begins and a number of switchback paths lead you up to the Pincio. A platform with fabulous views of Rome and where the warty dome of St Peters can be seen across the Tiber. Also the Chiesa Santa Maria Popolo which is snuggled up against the city walls is worth a look for its Pinturicchio frescoes.
If you leave Popolo by the soutwest along Via Ripetta you will enter workaday Rome. As you walk along the street you will pass snack bars, butchers, bookstores and boutiques and will eventually end up at the Mausaleum of Augustus. This is where Rome's first Emperor is buried. The Mausaleum itself is a terracotta rounded tomb covered in trees and surrounded by a moat. Guided tours are available but have to be made in advance. Next door is the Ara Pracis (the altar of peace)A giant white marble frieze commemorating the imperial family is currently being refurbished and when re-opened will consist of a education and multi-media centre. I was sorry it was closed because I wanted to see what Augustus, Livia, Julia, Antonia and baby Claudius really looked like.
If you head east from here you will enter prime shopping territory. The Via del Corso runs south lined with boutique after boutique. The most famous Via off the Corso is of course the Via Condotti - the chicest shopping street in Rome. In this area pedestrians clutch Gucci handbags, hips start to swagger and sunglasses are pushed to the top of the head. Hermes, Prada, Gucci, Westwood, Cartier and Valentino all line the Via Condotti. But they must compete with the great sight at the end of the Via - the Spanish Steps. This lived up to expectation - a pink marble church stands on a hill with towers reaching into the sky. Three terraces with balaustrades spill down ending with a gushing fountain shaped like a boat. Horsedrawn carriages are at the foot of the steps and most surprising was the Keats-Shelley house - it was bright pink!
The Spanish Steps are one of the great people-watching areas of the world. And they are covered in tourists, you could do alot worse then spend half an hour people-watching on the steps. Beautifully coifed teenagers of both sexes hang out eyeing each other up. The women were dressed in the latest fashions and the current craze for men is tight jeans, spiky hair and sunglasses. Italians must be naturally born with sunglasses.
Michelangelo had not wanted to paint the frescoes for the pope's private chapel. He saw himself more as a sculptor as he was the creator of the masterpiece 'David' which is in the Accademmia in Florence. But he was set up to fail by a jealous rival - Bramante - and the Pope Julius II gave him the commission. Michelangelo took four years to do it and the warlike pope would frequently burst in and demand why he was taking so long? Michelangelo's solution? Lock God's representative out of his own chapel. You have to admire the cheek of the man.
The Sistine Chapel can only be viewed on a visit to the Musei Vaticani. It is not at the start which means you have to traverse over three miles of corridors to get to it. The entrance is surprisingly insignificant just a simple door in a wall and once through you are aware of a huge barnlike expanse and crowds of people. Over 20,000 people in peak season trudge through the Chapel each day, each one sparing only an average of one minute looking at the frescoes. As I entered most were standing in the centre with necks craned. My solution to the crowds was to find a bench around the edge and take a seat. No speaking is allowed in the chapel (although this is blatantly ignored) and no photos (the below pic is a postcard). I spent 3/4 of an hour there lapping up the stories and gossip of what went on to create this masterpiece.
The Chapel was painted in three stages. Originally there was just the walls and the ceiling was a vision of the night's sky. But Julius II wanted something to complement them, and finally there is the 'Last Judgment' above the altar which was the last to be completed. As your eyes follow the frescoes around the walls it becomes evident that the frescoes on the left depict the life of Moses and those on the right that of Christ. The scenes really stand out such as the fleeing of the Israelites from Egypt and the Sermon on the Mount. Michelangelo was only one of many to paint the wall screens others included Botticelli, Roselli, Perugio and Ghirlandaio.
But it is the ceiling that everyone risks neck-ache to see. Starting from the far wall there is 'The Creation of Light', 'The Creation of the Sun and Moon' (with god throwing huge globes around), 'The Creation of Man' (with that spark of life between God and Adam) and Temptation of the Garden of Eden. Everything has been recently restored and I marvelled at how sharp and bright the colours were. The audioguide was good at telling you how the frescoes were completed. Images must be completed each day before the plaster dries so Michelangelo only had eight hours a day to paint. Following this technique you can work out how long it took Michelangelo to complete each frescoe. Adam took four days to paint while God took only three. What does that tell you about the meaning of life?
I found the whole experience wonderful but only because I had a really good audioguide. The colours of the frescoes are just as sharp as they were on completion in 1514. You can imagine the 'word-of-mouth' that went around Europe at the time. Julius II must have forgiven the artist over the time he took on seeing it in all its glory. Maybe it was worth shutting out the Pope after all?
The Pantheon and the Piazza Navona are a long way from public transport. Buses stop along Via Plebiscito but the nearest metro is probably Barberini or Colosseo. And they are a long walk from either. If you are approaching from the Trevi Fountain the crowds generally hit the trail after Via Ignazio and head west along the russet-red streets. My tip to you is to leave the Corso at Piazza Colonna. While you are aimlessly meandering along you will be bounced out of your thoughts by an extraordinary structure - the Column of Marcus Aurelius. This was the Emperor who fought massive battles against the German hordes and reliefs of the battles spiral up this 150ft marble column. And even more interesting is that it shares the Piazza with the Prime Ministers residence.
West of here is the judicial part of Rome and then after following twisting turning streets you will stumble out onto The Pantheon. This is an extraordinary building and you are looking at probably, after the Colosseum, the most perfect Roman building in the world. The one standing dates from Hadrians time, but this was based on a temple previously built by Marcus Agrippa - Augustus' right-hand man when the piazza was Mars Field. It survived the destruction of most pagan buildings in this city of pope's by being converted in a church. And it's exterior is very impressive with looming dome, Roman inscriptions and towering Doric column's. The Piazza itself is a nice place to relax with cafes, restaurants, shops and obligatory obelisque and fountain.
Everyone visits the interior sooner or later and once you get used to the darkness a perfect dome soars above you with octagonal niches and a circular hole providing the light. The altar was gold and around the edges were the tombs of Raphael and King Victor Emanuelle. The ancient marble floor echoes as you move around and the crowds whisper in hushed voices. I chatted to an American couple and we all wondered why a hole in the roof? Surely impractical when it rains. They must have good drainage and according to their guidebook the rain hits the interior floor in a perfect circle.
You can hardly miss the way to the Piazza Navona due to signs and crowds. This was very high on my list to see and it did not disappoint. As you emerge from the brownstone streets a great cicular Piazza greets your eyes. The Piazza Navona is colossal. Terracotta buildings overlook a marble floor; the domed church of St Agnese dominates and three fountains throw their wates up into the air. The fountain in front of St Agnese was the best - the Fontana di Quatro Fiume. A great obelisque soars into the air surrounded by a sea-god and nymphs. Each figure represents the four rivers of the world - the Nile, Danube, Plate and Ganges. Similar fountains dot the northern and southern ends.
But Piazza Navona is a fabulous place to wander with its pigeons, artists, restaurants, Senegalese Gucci bag-salesmen and hundreds of tourists. I adored the fountain at the northern end - the Fontana di Netune. Neptune in his white marble glory is struggling with sea monsters (see photo). Set against the orange buildings and a sapphire sky - the white marble god spearing an entangling octopus was just the best - I adored it.
Two tips - one is a toyshop at the northern end of Piazza Navona which looks like something out of 'Pinnochio' and the other is a gelateria also on its northern edge. The proprietress here is very flirtaceous and you may find yourself tongue-tied while ordering. On view were pestaccio, raspberry, chocolato or supafrutto? What was it I was going to have?
If you are clever you can approach it from behind, and all you hear is the babble of tourist voices and gushing of water until you blunder out into the tiny piazza that houses this great treasure. But this part of the Centro Storico is really worth an afternoon's wander. The stretch from The Spanish Steps to the Piazza Venezia is really where the country is governed from and has some of the best shopping in Italy. You will share the streets with armies of parked motorbikes, teenagers up from the suburbs, old ladies on their way to church and the carabineri watching over it all. And of course there are the great sights of the Victor Emanuelle monument, the Quirinal Hill and the Trevi Fountain. Which despite the crowds and chaos remains my favourite sight in Rome.
The best way to reach it is to walk or take the metro. Dozens of buses stop in the Piazza Venezia and from there it is a short walk up the Corso. But the best way is probably to take the metro to Spagna stop and head south after the Spanish steps. This area really is worth a wander and is crammed full of designer boutiques, marble courtyards and terracotta streets. One of the things I love about Rome is that it hasn't been take over by the chain-stores there is still individual shops rather then international emporiums. Bucking this trend is a McDonalds on the Via del Corso but across from this is a great book/antiques market which is worth a browse. I enjoy joining the shoppers in the record emporiums on the Corso and wondered at the Italian affection for British pop music. Inexplicable but very welcome.
But if you head down the Via del Propaganda the Centro Storico starts to get maze-like and confusing. An increase in tourist vendors announces that you are approaching another great sight. After the Via Tritone you approach from behind with an angle of white statues and gushing water. It reaches you slowly and then you see the it as a whole - Bloody hell! look at that!
The Trevi Fountain is simply jawdroppingly beautiful. It is a writhing mish-mash of rocks with an ornate renaissance palace as a backdrop. A gigantic white titan stands over all armed with a poised trident and straddling writhing sea-horses. All around him sea-nymph's play tunes on conch-shells and hang onto the manes of sea-horses and water gushes over the rocks and statues into an aquamarine pool. And the crowds! Hordes and hordes of people trying to align cameras or toss coins over their shoulder into the pool. I just stood and gazed - with the bright Italian sunshine the work of art seemed to glow and almost shine.
Rows of stone seats fan out from the pool allowing the masses to rest. This was the only part of Rome that came close to being strangled by tourists as chunks of Venice are. Wandering the seats were Indian hawkers trying to sell toys and cameras. I never expected to find the hard-sell that I encountered in Jaipur here in Rome. But nothing deflects from the Fountain and I was amazed by the size of the Sea God, the intricacies of the frieze behind and the fact that the whole fountain is fed by a natural spring. Also I wouldn't advise bathing in the fountain as Anita Ekberg does in 'La Dolce Vita'. It is laced with very potent bleach to keep the water clean.
South of here along the Via San Vincente is the heart of the Italian republic. At the top of the Via Dattaria is a climb to the Quirinal hill. The Quirinal was one of the ancient hills of Rome. On the western side is the Palazzo Quirinal which was once home to pope's and royalty and now home to the Italian President. At the centre of this massive piazza is yet another Egyptian obelisque with titanic white marble statues of Castor and Pollux either side. But the views from the balaustrade across the rooftops of Rome is breathtaking. The brown cityscape is broken only by the domes of baroque churches and the chariot statues of the Victor Emanuelle Monument. Rome is famous for its views and you can see why.
The actual Victor Emanuelle Monument is not far away on Piazza Venezia. This enormous Piazza is the traffic/pedestrian equivalent of the centre of Rome and the Corso and Via Fiore Imperiale fan out from it. It is dominated by "God's typewriter" - the Victor Emanuelle Monument. Every guidebook hates it and pours scorn on it but I rather like it. It reminds me of the grandeur of Imperial Rome. Also, if it is open, its hundreds of steps are a good place to sit down and tuck into that picnic you bought earlier. It's a nice place to sit, relax, and watch Rome rush around you.
This is your one chance to see inside the Vatican. John Paul's apartments are across the Piazza on the west side of St Peters so the great Vatican palace stretches north from the Piazza and overlooks the vast Vatican gardens which can be visited on a separate tour. The pope's were in a unique position to not just acquire art but to instigate it and commissioned the greatest artists of the day to decorate their apartments. On the whole they were a dour lot generally going for scene's of the old testament and the apostle's. The papacy even tamed the notorious Borgia's whose apartments are the second highlight of the museum (I think you can guess the first)whose comments when they arrived in the Vatican were "God has given us the papacy..let's enjoy it.."
A hell of a lot of people enjoy the Musei Vaticani which means massive queues. If you do a day sightseeing on this side of the Tiber then hit the Musei first before the Basilica. Everyone heads for St Peters first from the metro giving you that extra hour in the morning to walk straight in. To reach it take the metro to Ottoviano and a quick route to the main entrance means head along Via Guilio Ceasre from the metro. A quick turn south along Via Leone IV and the caramel walls of the Vatican will loom above you. You can walk from St Peters Square but the crowds are horrendous and the pavements so narrow some people are squeezed onto the road. The entrance fee is 18,000 lira and my second tip is to invest in an audio guide for another 5,000 lira. This was a god-send as upon each work of art is a number. When this is punched into the audio-guide it tells you about this work of art. It's like having your own personal tour-guide to the museum.
When you enter the marble corridors of the Vatican museum you are in part of the papal palace. This was the Belvedere palace created in the 15th century and connected to St Peters by long long corridors decorated by great artists. That was so refreshing about the Vatican, unlike the Prado or Louvre the works of art wern't on the walls they WERE the walls. Anyway, the palace is gigantic and it takes alot of stamina to cover it. When you get tired you can sit in the Vatican courtyard which is overlooked by the dome of St Peters (see photo) and is where the tourgroups are briefed about the Sistine Chapel as no speaking is allowed inside the Chapel itself. The first museum you come to is the Museo Egizeo (Egyptian museum) with its mummies, saicophagai and Egyptian statues. It's good to see that the pope's pinched as much out of Egypt as everybody else.
The Pio Clementine was a long marble corridor with thousands of Roman busts and statues. There were too many for the audioguide and the labelling was insufficient but the effect of all these ancient eyes staring back at you was disconcerting. I found a fabulous marble statue of the Emperor Tiberius which made him look very noble. Nearby was the Sala Rotonda - one of the most gorgeous rooms in the palace - dominated by a colossal porphyry basin and surrounded by huge statues of Emperor's and god's including a large one of Hercules covered in gilt. Further on was the Animal room with every statue of an animal possible - goats, bulls, crocodiles, camels and panthers. And the Greek Cross room was full of Egyptian statues and a saicophagai of the Emperor Constantine.
You soon pass into the great corridors leading to the papal apartments. The first of these is the gallery of Candelabra's with more statues and a ceiling of gilt that gleamed as we passed underneath. The gallery of tapestries depicted those from the school of Raphael. Raphael's sponsor was Pope Urban IV and the tapestries show Herod's massacre of the firstborn. As you approach the Sistine Chapel the souvenirs and crowds increase. And one of these huge corridors is the fascinating gallery of maps. They were basic overviews of Italy but the crowds could pinpoint Sardinia, Sicily, Corsica and Venice. And then the Borgia apartments which was my favourite. Raphael was commissioned to design the apartments and to stand in the middle of the apartments gazing up at his paintings on the ceilings with stirring classical music playing on the audio-guide was one of the highlights of my visit to the Eternal city. I went back to these apartments again and again...
The view is nothing less then earthshaking. On two sides is a vast colonnade designed by Bernini. The colonnade embraces a square the size of two football pitches massed with pilgrims. A great obelisque is set in the centre surrounded by Bernini's gushing fountains. Between the gap between the arms of the colonnades is Via Conzolione stretching all the way down to Pont St Angelo and the Tiber and behind you will be a great marble platform dotted with giant statues leading up to the mighty St Peters Basilica. The great home of the global Catholic church is overpowering in its bulk and its facade is dotted with statues and column's. The great warty dome of St Peters can barely be seen from below. Take your time enjoying the view - you are now standing at one of the centres of the world...
You will pinch yourself that you have finally reached the most famous church in the world. All others are humble in the face of god's representative on earth. Italy may not have the mighty empire it did have 2,000 years ago but the world still turns its attention to this city as the centre for the Catholic faith. This is the last and most famous St Peters built on this site. The first was built over the area of St Peters crucifixion and lasted a thousand years. This was the true centre of the medieval world with worshipper passing alms and making pilgrimiges from every country in Christendom. The medieval pope's were so powerful they could excommunicate the peoples of whole countries. By the 16th century the Old Peters had begun to decay and plans were drawn for a fitting magnificent church for the vicar of Christ. And elderly Michelangelo had a hand but it was transformed over sixty years by a succession of architects. They created the most spectacular church in the world.
Every visitor to Rome feels obliged to visit St Peters just as they feel obliged to see the Sistine Chapel. In consequence Piazza San Pietro gets very crowded not just with tourists but with pilgrims, nuns and priests. To reach it is easy. The best way is probably from Ottoviano metro and follow the crowds down Via Ottoviano to Berlini's colonnades. But a spectacular church demands a spectacular approach and the traditional way is across the Tiber from the Centro Storico - the Pont St Angelo with Bernini's angel statues and along Via Conzolione. The best tip I can give you about this area is to hit the Vatican Museum first. The crowds pile out of Ottoviano metro and do St Peters first therefore the Musei Vaticani has no queues. Only an hour later when they have seen the Basilica and trudged around the Vatican walls do the queues become absloutely horrendous.
But as you step through the maze of Bernini's colonnades and admire the statues of saints adorning them - the whole of St Peters lays bare before you. We visited on a Wednesday when the pope gives an audience in the morning. Thousands of chairs had been laid out and were being cleared away by men in vans (see photo)and the piazza was full of thousands of pilgrims. Holy visitors from all over the world follow guides with pink sticks aloft and the queue for the toilets was unbelievable. But seldom have I got such a sense of being at the centre of things as I was surrounded by African nun's, Filipino priests and Albanian pilgrims. Most head up to the great Basilica and I found myself climbed the colossal portico with the rest. A gigantic statue of St Peter (see photo) was nearby and we were watched by the Swiss guards in their costumes designed by Michelangelo.
Make sure you cover your shoulders and legs when entering this mother of churches. And I felt a little tingle of excitement as I passed through the doors. Inside, you get a massive sense of space immediately with a real giant of a nave. The church seems to swallow the thousands of visitors and was in near darkness only illuminated by the famous dome above. Each of the towering marble columns held statues of saints or apostles and the side chapels were very impressive. The most famous being Michelangelo's Pieta - a statue of the virgin carrying Christs body. Near the massive altar was another queue this one to kiss the feet of a statue of St Peter. This one was dressed in robes with a crown on his head.
You need a lifetime to explore St Peters properly. Several highlights stand out - the Baldacchino (papal altar) with its bronze corners twisting into the air and the entrance to the tombs which listed all pope's and dates of their rule going back to St Peter. Take your time in St Peters, there's alot to take in and I can guarantee the next time you visit Rome you will head back there to see it all again. And who can blame you - a visit here is one of the great experiences Europe can offer..
The Campo di Fiore (Field of Flowers) is in the southern part of the Centro Storico. From here to the Tiber is the famous Jewish ghetto - a region of apricot houses, switchback streets and zooming vespa's. There has been a market on this sight since the 14th century and it was in this area that Lucretia Borgia was born and Caravaggio murdered his opponent after being beaten at a game of tennis. Most famous though for the burnings of the inquisition including St Bruno who believed that philosophy was more important than Religion. The pope's wern't going to put up with that and he was burn't in the Campo. A statue marks the spot with the cowled St Bruno looking rather like 'The Emperor' in the Star Wars films.
To reach the Campo is rather tricky. The metro is a long way away - the nearest one is probably Colosseo or Barberini. The quickest approach is probably along Via Plebisito which heads west from Piazza Venezia. This Via runs all the way to the Tiber and is lined with souvenir stalls, gelatarias, theatres and fast-food emporiums. The best sight is undoubtedly the Torre Argentina (Towers of Silver)whose russet-red columns poke from the ground (see photo) and are covered in feral Roman cats (I've never seen so many cats in a city as there are in Rome). Along the southside of Via Plebiscito is Via Paradiso leading into the jewish ghetto. You know you are heading in the right direction for the Campo di Fiore when the smell of parmesan cheese hits your nostrils.
This is a traditional market par excellence. Terracotta shuttered buildings overlook a cobbled Campo covered in stalls and awnings (see photo). The atmosphere is worth lapping up - smelly fishmongers with buckets of whelks, rows of tomatoes, apples and fennel, strings of pasta hanging from stalls and earthy Roman characters shouting and hollering to drum up trade. The best time to come is early in the morning when everything is fresh and the locals do their shopping. By mid-day the market is packing up to go home and everybody is heading off for lunch. The only people left in the Campo by then are the tourists.
I most really recommend the tiny family restaurants around the edge. These cater for market traders and are so reasonably priced that they are a great place to have lunch. We bagged a tortellini, mineral water and desert for about 13,000 lira and it's fun to sit outside and watch the hubbub of the market. If you want to escape the crowds then head south and west out of the Campo to the Tiber. The streets around here are so narrow and full of shuttered overhanging houses. This was the jewish ghetto in Rome and has been for 2,000 years. Why so many jews in the home of the papacy? Because they were useful and the popes milked them for taxes.
You will eventually hit the banks of the Tiber. If there is ever a river in a capital city that has been forgotten about it is the Tiber. Not as vast and expansive as the Thames, Seine or the Danube when it flows through Budapest - the Tiber sort of creeps through the city. It is immensely beautiful with high stone banks, waterweeds and drooping cypresses. It does however make a lovely walk in the sunshine. And if you head south you will hit the Isola Tiberina (Tiber island)which is covered in apartment blocks, chapels, palms and mansions (see photo). In any other city this would be a major tourist attraction. But in Rome....
This huge monstrous bulk is one of the most ancient in Rome. It is famous for being the mausaleum created for himself by the great Emperor Hadrian. The most interllectual, cultured and successful of Emperor's; he created this towering cream coloured mountain of a building for his final resting place (based on the mausaleum of Augustus across the river. Originally it was covered in white marble and its flat top was covered in a garden of cypresses - both of which have long gone. But this has to be the most solid resilient building in Rome and must have been near impregnable. This fact was not lost on the papacy nearby who constructed a corridor between it and the Vatican for times of trouble. The most famous time when his holiness had to hitch up the papal robes and sprint for safety was in 1527 with the sack of Rome. Pope Clement II was trapped in the Castel and had to watch Rome burn around him through the arrowslits.
To reach it is simple enough. Most people approach it across the Pont St Angelo on their way to St Peters from the Centro Storico. This has the advantage of a big build up and the vista of the Castel at the end of an angel lined bridge is one of the most memorable in Rome (see photo). The bridge nowadays is lined with Senegalese/Dijbouti hawkers trying to sell fake Gucci handbags. They are not very persistant but may unintentionally get in the way when you are craning your head over the side of the Pont. But the quickest way is probably via the metro. The Castel is an easy walk from Lepanto station. A short pleasant walk takes you down Via Colonna and Via Tacito to the rear of the Castel. Admitance is a mere 10,000 lira.
Make sure you pick up the free map when you enter and one thing is for sure you will be surprised at the lack of visitors especially if you have just visited St Peters. The first thing to see is the stone circular inner bailey of this fortress. Several stone staircases lead up to the battlements and the huge round edifice of the tomb itself is in the centre. A spiral ramp leads you into the mausaleom and was the funeral ramp of the Emperor Hadrian and it is not difficult to envisage the cortege moving up illuminated by flickering flambeaux. Be careful on the ramp, the stairs are not steep but there are alot of them. We saw an Anglo-Indian couple give up and head for a rest on the battlements. At the top is a courtyard with siege weapons and stairs leading up onto the battlements (see photo). A statue of an angel dominates the courtyard and as my friend remarked - "It's the closest, Steve, that you'll ever get to heaven.."
Off the courtyard are the papal apartments which were decorated in some splendour. But now you are on the battlements with superb views of Rome. A restaurant is set up on the battlements so you can view the dome of St Peters through an arrowslit while sipping coffee, and this is a good place to rest. Off the battlements is a small museum showing muskets, armour and pikes but it is the view from the very top which makes the Castel St Angelo. At the very pinnacle is a giant statue of an angel with sword drawn and on the parapet below is a viewing platform. To the east across the Tiber is the tangerine cityscape of Rome with its baroque domes and hills. Directly below is the angular battlements of the Castel which drop down into the green Tiber. But the horizon to the south is dominated by the grey dome of St Peters. The colonnades of the Piazza could be seen with pilgrims in their thousands moving down the Via Conzolione.
Save the Castel St Angelo as your first or last sight in Rome. But whatever you do, make sure your see it - the views are incredible....
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