Since I started working, I’ve obviously had to cut back on my travel. Which is a shame, yes, but an inevitable result of having a job, and one that I can’t do much about. Luckily, Matt managed to snag a Rome layover this month that left on Friday afternoon, and arrived back on Sunday morning. This got me back just in time for my team meeting. I jumped at the chance to revisit the Eternal City, and set off with a basic plan of the sights I wanted to see.
Last time I visited Rome, which was around 2007, it was experiencing a heatwave. The whole of Italy was. While I had a great time, I remember being totally exhausted by the heat, and overwhelmed by the amount of tourists around. And the smell… oh boy, the smell. Italy in the summertime smelt like an open sewer. I was more than happy to be visiting in the cold – off-peak – season, and hoped it might alleviate some of the issues I experienced last time!
We arrived late in the evening, so had a meal at the hotel and an early night. We stayed at the Rome Airport Hilton, a pretty unremarkable hotel, but it did offer a great breakfast buffet and a free shuttle into the city. Leaving on Italian time – about 10 minutes late – we departed for the city centre just after 8, and was in the city about twenty to nine.
Hopping off the bus, we were right in the thick of it. I forgot how old Rome really is. I guess most of my travel recently has been through relatively ‘modern’ cities, although some (like Amman) had historical sites thrown in for good measure. The city centre of Rome, on the other hand, is simply one big archelogical site. Within two minutes of hopping off the bus, we were gawking at the Commune building, the Musei Capitolini and the Palazzo Venezia. Walking through the old cobbled streets in the cold air was so nice – one of the main things I miss, living in Dubai. You can walk around Dubai, sure. But it’s a mall, or a housing estate, or the beach. It isn’t a beautiful old alleyway lined with potplants and vespas and ancient architecture. Being so close – a mere six or seven hours flight away – from the old capitals of Europe is one of the main drawcards of living in Dubai, to me.
When I visited Rome last time, I spent my time visiting the Coliseum and the Roman Forum, and then collapsed into the hotel swimming pool in the afternoon. It was hot, and tiring. This time, there were a few things I planned on seeing. The first was the Spanish Steps. We wandered up towards the Scalinata di Trinità dei Monti, and I actually didn’t notice when we arrived. I was busy looking at all the pretty Christmas decorations lining the streets. I actually knew nothing about their history or what they looked like, so wasn’t sure what to expect. They were smaller than expected, and surrounded by luxury stores. There was a Bvlgari Christmas Tree parked halfway up. There were hardly any tourists around, which delighted me to no end. Like a lot of people, I suspect, I’d only seen the steps in Roman Holiday, and couldn’t really remember what was distinctive about them. Regardless – it is pretty neat to say you’ve climbed the Spanish Steps. Built between 1723-1725 by and financed by French diplomat Étienne Gueffier’s, they were built to link the the Trinità dei Monti church (under the patronage of the king of France), with the Spanish square below. Basically, he wanted an easier walk down the hill. We instead went up, and there was a lovely view over the city from the top. Down the other side, we head towards the Trevi Fountain, the next landmark on my list.
The Trevi Fountain is a bit more distinctive than the Spanish Steps. Did I mention the insane Police presence in Rome? It didn’t bother me in the least, but it was noticeable. I suppose it is probably the same in any major European capital these days. Anyway, the Trevi Fountain wasn’t particularly busy either, and we did the ubiquitous coin toss. Apparently over 3000 euros a day are tossed into the fountain in the height of summer, with the money donated to local charities. Once one of over a thousand fountains in 4th Century Rome, it is one of the oldest water sources in the city. It stands a massive 85 feet tall and is almost 65 feet wide. The fountain spills about 2,824,800 cubic feet of water every day, but members of the public are no longer able to drink from the fountain… probably a good thing, as I imagine the water would get a bit gruesome. The statues, though, are beautiful. It was a relaxing place to spend a few minutes, before making our way again through the back alleys of Rome.
Our next stop was the Pantheon. Both Matt and I had already visited before, but… when in Rome. Plus, it’s free, and it’s impressive. It was bigger than I remembered, but that might have been because it felt empty compared to my last visit. Originally built as a temple to the Gods in Ancient Rome, the Pantheon was repurposed as a Catholic Church in the 7th Century. It is very well preserved, mainly because it has actually been used throughout its whole history. The sheer scale of the building is bewildering given its age – how on earth was such a massive building able to be created in a structurally sound way? I did get an answer to one of my questions though – why on earth there is a giant hole in the ceiling. Quite logically, it is the main source of light. The water that enters through the hole in the roof drains through a number of openings in the floor.
After admiring the creepy statues outside, we wandered through Piazza Navona, which (disappointingly) didn’t yet have any Christmas Markets set up. I imagine the 1st and 2nd of December is when things just start to kick off in Italy – the hotel was hurriedly putting up its decorations as we left. We then made our way along the river, under rows of beautiful Autumn trees losing their leaves, to the Ponte Umberto I. I remembered taking a beautiful photo of St Marks Cathedral from that spot on my last visit, and wanted to recreate it.
After walking past the Castel Sant’Angelo (not a particularly attractive building, I might add!), we knew we were fairly close to the Vatican. Well, we could see the buildings. However, even if we couldn’t have seen them, the constant pestering of tour guides would have let us know. While the rest of Rome was fairly well abandoned, the Vatican was still very busy. And there were plenty of people trying to make a few dollars out of us. We had sensibly booked tickets online, so walked around to the back/museu entrance, and having arrived super early, went and grabbed some delicious sandwiches at Panino Sistino. This little hole in the wall café had a fantastic, and very affordable menu, just minutes away from the Vatican. After polishing off our lunch, we entered the Vatican.
I don’t know much about the Vatican, to be honest. I didn’t bother even visiting it last time I was in Rome, as it held no real interest for me. While I figured that, this time, I should make the effort, I still never actually made it into St Marks Basilica – the two-hour wait was far too long for me. However, I did manage to see the Sistine Chapel, and a few of the other buildings in the complex. It was a little overrated to me. Ironically, I was so tired of wandering through corridor after corridor to get to the Sistine Chapel, that I actually missed seeing Michelangelo’s famous Creation of Adam. Oh well. To those of Catholic faith, I can see why the place holds special meaning, but to me – it was just like visiting another church, and an insanely busy one at that. I’ve seen a fair few churches this year, I must say. I won’t rush back in any great hurry, although I loved the giant Christmas tree outside!
We then started wandering slowly back towards the bus stop, stopping to look at interesting buildings and sites on the way. We actually ended up in the original Roman Ghetto, which we noticed due to the many kosher restaurants and tiny signs mentioning Auschwitz on the ground. Originally established in 1555, life under the ghetto was particularly harsh, given it was situated in the least desirable part of town – an area prone to flooding. Ironically, it is now an area with some of the highest property prices, and is a popular foodies haunt. During World War Two, the German government proclaimed that Rome’s Jews would be spared deportation to Nazi concentration camps if a gold ransom was paid. Many people in the city donated gold, raising the required amount. However, on October 16th, 1943, Nazi soldiers entered the neighborhood and deported between 1,000 and 2,000 people. Only 16 survived. We found a plaque commemorating this sad occasion near the ruins of the Portico d’Ottavia, the old fish market.
Sitting near the Teatro Marcello, completed in 15BC, we sipped some very rich hot chocolate at Antico caffe del teatro Marcello whilst waiting for our bus to return, and I finally saw my first cat of Rome. To anyone thinking of visiting Rome in the winter – do it! It’s absolutely beautiful, the leaves are amazing, and the tourists – for the large part – keep away. You will have an amazing time.