When we finally decided to visit Rome, we hadn’t anticipated that our trip to Rome in August would coincide with one of Italy’s worst heatwaves in years! We knew it would be hot, but not quite this hot! But, despite sweating profusely and consuming gallons and gallons of water throughout our trip, it was so wonderful and special to see Rome and its treasures.
Rome is a beautiful, fascinating city. It is crowded and can be very very hot, but it has a charm all of its own, and if you are a history buff (as I am!) it is a fascinating place. We visited Rome for just a few days, and it just isn’t possible to see everything in that time, you really do have to pick and choose what you see and do with a limited number of days. The famous saying about Rome is “Rome: a lifetime is not enough,” and I could certainly see why that is true. We had 4 days in Rome, which included side trips to Vatican City, Naples and Pompeii, and we wished we had so many more.
We stayed in a rental apartment called Domus Ciancaleoni in the heart of the Monti district, one of the oldest districts in Rome. The closest Metro stop was Cavour, which was only a 5 minute walk away from our apartment. Domus Cianceleoni was an old palace, now converted into several apartments. It became apparent during our stay that the entire place was built on the site of Roman remains dating to the 1st Century B.C., and the assistant who regularly visited the building to check on guests was only too eager to show us a glimpse of what was down in the bowels of the old palace. The entire apartment building was in a small alleyway, not accessible by car, which added to its charm. At the end of the alleyway was a flight of steps, which led down to a wonderful Italian restaurant, Trattoria il Tettarello, where we had many a great meal.
Our first night in Rome we walked around and took in the city at night. We visited the Trevi Fountain, and threw the obligatory coins into the fountain, hoping to ensure that we would return to Rome again one day. The Trevi Fountain gets very crowded with tourists, and everyone tries to push to the front to take selfies or have their photo taken. But at night the fountain is beautifully lit up and it really is a special sight to take in. After visiting the Trevi Fountain we stopped by a gelato shop and bought wonderful Italian ice creams, something we took advantage of constantly throughout our trip! There are so many gelato shops dotted around all over Rome, with so many flavors to entice and delight.
On our first full day in Rome we visited the Colosseum, which was only about a 15 minute walk from our apartment. The best advice for Colosseum tours is to book ahead and purchase “skip the line” tickets. The tickets we purchased included a tour of the underground chambers at the Colosseum, as well as the arena and the upper seating level. These tickets also included a tour of the Forum and Palatine Hill (more on that later). With a group tour guide we toured the underground chambers underneath the arena first, where the gladiators and wild animals would all be ready and waiting to be released into the huge Colosseum arena. This underground tour made a very welcome respite from the hot sun outside. Emerging back into the sunlight and the outside arena itself, we sat on stone steps at the edge of the arena where dignitaries and emperors had sat to watch the gladiators and animals do battle. The arena itself seated over 50,000 people at its height of popularity, each class of people in a different seating area (emperors and aristocracy at the front, together with vestal virgins, and at the very top the slaves and plebs would sit, further away from the action). The Colosseum is full of numerous wild cats, just wandering around or popping out from behind stones, there really must have been dozens of cats living in the old ruins, probably more as it was the hot heat of the day during our visit when many were probably hiding in the shade. Our tour guide regaled us with tales of the fighting and battles in the arena, and the many interesting animals who were used for fights. She also told us an interesting story about how the thumbs-up, thumbs-down sign, so used today, actually originated in ancient Rome (thumbs-up meant save a life, thumbs-down meant let them die). Standing at the very top of the Colosseum you can see all around, and it is very exciting to take in the sights of Rome that you can see from here (and great photo opportunities!).
The underground of the Colosseum
After having a quick lunch in a restaurant nearby, we proceeded to the Forum and Palatine Hill, the entrance to which was part of the ticket we had purchased for the Colosseum tour. The Forum and Palatine hill are adjacent to each other, and it is possible to walk from one to the other. We did the Forum first. The Forum is situated in the valley which is between Palatine Hill and the Capitol. It contains a square, which was the hub of commercial exchanges and political and judicial activities back in Rome’s heyday. Here you can see sights such as the Arch of Titus, Basilica of Maxentius, Temple of Venus and Rome, and the Temple of Caesar. The Temple of Caesar was built by emperor Augustus in the spot where Caesar’s body was burned. Not much remains of that temple today – just a pile of dirt, but visitors to the site still today place flowers at Caesar’s ‘grave.’ There is also Basilica Aemilia, the only Republican Basilica to survive; the Arch of Septimius Severus, and the Temple of Saturn, among many other ruins of great and important buildings. The House of the Vestals, on the edge of the Forum, I found an incredibly beautiful spot. This is the spot of the old house of the Vestal Virgins. The building is long gone, but its foundations can be seen, enabling you to see the basic plan of the house as it would have been. The courtyard contains statues of the women who were the head vestals, and their virtues are inscribed on the pedestals on which they stand. With the late afternoon light and less crowds in this part, it truly felt like a beautiful lovely relaxing place. We enjoyed going from statue to statue reading the ‘virtues’ of these women, now long forgotten.
After spending hours at the Forum, we walked up to Palatine Hill. Palatine Hill was the residence of the emperors, so has some wonderful ruins, including those of the ‘Reggia” (King’s Palace). The whole area of Palatine Hill was a residential district for the nobility, and therefore was the site of very splendid elaborate buildings in its day. It was said that Palatine Hill was where Rome and the Roman Empire were founded, under the direction of Romulus. It was the home of the mythical Lupercal Cave, where Romulus and Remus were apparently found by Lupa, who raised them. We did not have a tour guide, and just wandered around with the help of various books, therefore it was very hard to know what every ruin signified and once was. But it was beautiful just wandering around looking at the ruins and the beauty around. There are wonderful views from Palatine Hill, including down across to the Forum and the Colosseum, and again some wonderful photo opportunities.
View from Palatine Hill
Needless to say we had very sore feet after our day walking around all these fantastic ruins. We only had the strength left to walk to the local restaurant we loved to eat lots of wonderful Italian food!
Day two we took a side trip to Naples and Pompeii. See the blog post here.
Day three we took in the Pantheon. The Pantheon is surrounded by tiny little narrow streets, full of little cafes and tourist souvenir shops. The tourist souvenirs include a lot of calendars of Italian ‘priests’, extremely handsome and fit looking young men who are apparently priests! (I heard this is a complete fabrication intended for tourists!). We bought lunch in a little cafe and ate it sitting on a wall outside the Pantheon, watching the world go by. The Pantheon was originally a Pagan temple that was built to honor all the gods. The only reason the Pantheon escaped beyond the end of the Roman empire was because it was consecrated as a Christian church. Inside the Pantheon is a large dome, and in the center is an opening to the sky, called an oculus. The Pantheon is actually a mathematical and architectural amazement, the height to the oculus is exactly the same as the diameter of the dome, which makes it perfectly proportioned. The dome of the Pantheon is actually the world’s largest un-reinforced concrete dome! All this of course was done in an age when complex computers and instruments were not available to calculate such things. At the time we visited a choir was singing inside, all the way from England! which we found quite ironic. The last resting place of the Renaissance painter, Raphael is inside the Pantheon, and we gathered around the tomb to this great man.
Later at night we visited the area around the Spanish Steps. We window shopped along Via Condotti, which is known as the ‘poshest’ shopping street in Rome. This is where all the big name stores are such as Gucci, Prada and Jimmy Choo. The window displays alone were fascinating. We had dinner in a lovely little restaurant down a side street near here, where I managed to throw red wine all down my white trousers! As I went to the bathroom to clean myself up I encountered an Italian woman leaving as I was entering. She looked at my stained trousers, shrugged and laughed and said “You are in Rome!” (meaning who cares!). After the restaurant (and whilst trying to cover up my stained trousers!) we walked around Piazza di Spagna. Hoards of people just sit on the Spanish Steps, and we didn’t even attempt to walk up them. The kids loved the fountains in the square itself and had a lot of fun just wandering around.
Day four we visited the Vatican and the Vatican Museum in Vatican City. This trip deserves a blog post all of its own, which can be found here.
Departing Rome was very sad. We had such a wonderful time in this interesting and charming city, with so much to see and do, not to mention eat! Our memories of Rome were abundant: the sound of opera blasting from the apartment building across from ours in the morning; the wonderful food that you didn’t feel rushed to eat; the depressing bleakness of Caesar’s final resting place; the beautiful calm House of the Vestals courtyard; the sun glinting off the ruins of the Colosseum; the lights of the city at night, lighting up a vibrant busy city.
Notes about Rome:
The food in Rome is just wonderful, as you would expect. Restaurants have such a laid back atmosphere, where you feel you can really enjoy your meal. Waiters are attentive and accommodating and do not rush you. As for the food, pizza in Italy is not the version of pizza sold in the rest of the world – it isn’t slapped with lots and lots of toppings. It is very basic and rustic looking, with more crust than toppings. You certainly won’t get a huge cheese-dripped pizza in Italy.
There are numerous cafes everywhere, serving the best coffee you will probably ever have, but once again, just like the pizza, it is very different to that served in the US. You may buy a huge cup of coffee at Starbucks in the US, but in Italy you are more likely to get a small espresso. It costs extra to take your coffee at a table in the cafes, but it can be worth it rather than trying to order your coffee at the bar which can be very crowded. Capuccinos are considered a morning drink in Italy, so don’t order one after lunchtime, in fact any frothy milky drink is seen as a breakfast drink only.
Getting around Rome is incredibly easy. The Metro is extremely easy to navigate. Bus number 64 is a bus route that takes in many sights of Rome. It is apparently extremely popular with pick-pockets, so you should be careful. We had no problems at all, but I saw some quite stupid behavior on the part of tourists. One woman on the bus actually had her handbag unzipped and wide open, in fact a local man on the bus tapped her on the arm and told her to watch her bag. This bus route gets extremely crowded, with many standing and not able to get a seat, which makes it a great draw for pick-pockets. But it is a great route for getting around the sights easily, and is inexpensive (and great for people watching!), just watch your stuff!
Respect the places that you visit in the way you dress. Skimpy clothing showing too much flesh is frowned upon when visiting many places, especially religious places. As a woman either take a shawl to cover up, or consider wearing something less skimpy for sight-seeing.
Pick-pockets, as mentioned above, can be a problem. Not just on the crowded 64 bus route. We saw people putting their hands inside mens back pockets to try to retrieve wallets etc outside the Colosseum. This happens far easier than you would expect – any place where there is a crowd. As in any big city, just be careful.
Good walking shoes or sandals are an absolute must for getting around in Rome. You will do a lot of walking. Stop for frequent refreshment breaks (which is a fun thing to do!).