When in Rome… – Travel Piece

When in Rome…

After Rome became the 2nd destination to fly direct to from Perth, I decided to allow myself a few days to visit the famous city in the peak of summer. I can’t describe how delighted I am to have made that decision. This ancient town oozes with history, and one can only begin to grasp what sort of mischiefs the great kings and emperors got up to in a town of such epic proportions. The old façades are painted in palettes that modern-day paints can only strive to replicate; the bright oranges and strong pinks have faded throughout the years, reminding you of the history these buildings have witnessed for thousands of lifetimes. Romans honk their horns and yell from their scooters as the sound of their tyres echoes against the cobblestones, reminding you the everyday hustle of the capital must go on. As you stop at a café to catch your breath, the whistling of the coffee machine, combined with the clicking and clanking of the porcelain espresso saucers reminds you: you are in Rome. 

I am a firm believer that the best way to visit any European city is to wander through its little streets and alleys, but I visited Rome during the peak of a heatwave, which proved challenging. But fret not. The city is littered with countless movie-like alfrescos where one might just sit on an espresso – or a Peroni, for instance – to cool and slow down, admiring the architecture as life goes by. The city also provides historical drinking fountains on top of dark-cobbled hills for one to refresh during the countless hikes the capital will demand.

Because my flight landed at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport, I started this adventure by taking a 35-minute train that takes you directly to Termini Station, a good starting place, central to most landmarks, and where my hotel was located. The plan was simple: mark a spot on the map and start walking. But what might look like a simple trek on paper becomes so much more. The capital is woven by so many hidden nooks and crannies that you will only discover by getting lost between landmarks. And that is what fascinated me so much about Rome: the endless number of things to see and visit. When I asked an Italian friend for advice, he told me you could visit Rome for a month and still not scratch the surface. I presumed him to be exaggerating in typical Italian fashion, but boy, was he right. Every next corner invites you in with countless churches, museums and open-air ruins. I still do not remember the name of one of my favourite churches I stumbled upon, simply because there are so many of them. And this is one of the best things to explore at ease, for in Rome, churches are free for all.

But let’s get started. My first waypoint on the map was the Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica, a special place of worship where I was lucky to catch an afternoon mass. Because this was the first place I visited, it proved to be a good introduction to the expert level of craftsmanship displayed in the churches of the capital. The high ceilings are worked in intricate golden crevasses, with half a dozen windows aside, inviting an angelical display of light. The rose marble floors and walls hint at the countless lifetimes sacrificed for erecting such a place of worship, a sacrifice that many nowadays might struggle to comprehend. One thing I will advise my Australian friends is that both thongs and singlets are an absolute no-go in any place of worship in Rome, so make sure to dress accordingly. And trust me when I say that the frescoes and marble and gold statues are worth the wardrobe change.

From there, a short 15-minute walk brought me the most iconic landmark in Rome: the Colosseum, of course. The fact that I visited this mammoth monument during the dead heat of the day disheartened me about queuing under the sun. The thousands of tourists surrounding it – stopping for selfies, or approaching carabinieri about stollen wallets – encouraged me to simply walk around it and marvel in its dimension. The tourist who avoided tourists – a walking paradox. The Colosseum, though, is simply worth it, and regardless of how many pictures you have seen, the nearly two-thousand-year-old gigantic build, with its carved windows into the past, is something to behold. The iconic craftsmanship of slim bricks and lime-grey mortar brings you back to a whole different epoch where everything seems to have been designed in epic proportions. One can only imagine how the crowds must have felt when rushing to this epic arena to watch gladiators slay one another, a feeling merely replicated nowadays with the football stadiums around the capital.

One of the best things about the Colosseum is that it is situated in the dead centre of ancient Rome, a truly special place where the old paved roads are blocked off by military armed vehicles so that pedestrians can roam free. A short walk from the amphitheatre and you can visit Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum, where you will find dozens of open-air ruins sprawled around, resembling an old junkyard of forgotten relics. Again, Palatine Hill attracts large queues that one can avoid by booking online, but many of the ruins can be seen from the street leading to the Musei Capitolini. Atop the hill leading to the museum, I found the iconic Lupa Capitolina sculpture, a modest bronze wolf depicting the legend of the founding of Rome. This was a hill I decided to climb by chance, stopping to refresh myself against the heat wave in one of the city’s old drinking fountains.

It was in this wandering, unresearched spirit that I stumbled upon the Vittoriano, another mammoth neoclassical monument to celebrate the first king of the unified states of Italy. Referred to as the typewriter by the Romans due to its humongous marble stairwell, each one of its tall columns represents a region of the unified country. The patriotic building is some 85 metres high and 135 metres wide, covered mostly in botticino marble, and is riddled with historical meaning. The fact that it was built in the heart of Rome, central to Piazza Venezia, and that some historic ruins were found in the building process still raises some eyebrows amongst Romans. Because of its imposing height and location, I do recommend paying to go up the Vittoriano lookout, where you will be offered the best panoramic view of the whole city.

By the time I had seen all this, I decided it was time to call it a day and start the long trek back to Termini. The scorching sun was starting to get the better of me, but I was set on walking home in order to make the most of my two days in Rome. It was with an ironic smile that I managed to find what I would later learn is the most iconic stairwell in all of Rome, the Spanish Steps, central to the Piazza di Spagna. At the bottom of the steps, the Fontana della Barcaccia – an intricate marble boat-shaped fountain – celebrates the legend of a small boat that drifted towards the Piazza during flooding in the 16th century. This is a very busy part of Rome, with dozens of street salesmen making the most of the heatwave by offering tourists Oriental parasols and icy-cold water bottles. The steep climb up another marble stairwell was hardly what my body needed, but the promise of another church atop the steps proved worth the effort.  

I finally made it back to the hotel and the much-needed aircon. As I regained my energy, the time had come to start pondering on the all-important decision of where to go for dinner. The best advice I can give any hungry traveller around Southwest Europe is to find a place where locals eat, which means avoiding tourist hotspots at all costs. I managed to find a little gem in Castro Pretorio, where the only table available was on the street cobblestones. I will remember this first dinner in Italy for a good while, comprised of a plate of pasta and a little bottle of white wine on the road; the fact that you can make a simple meal pop is what, for me, defines gastronomic heritage.

I was well rested for what would be another big day in Rome, for I had set my mind on walking all the way to Vatican City. Once again, I set it as a waypoint and stopped on every spot worth checking on the way, like the Fontana di Trevi. Arguably the most famous fountain in the world, I was unlucky to catch it on cleaning day. The water was turned off for the morning and the city officials went about collecting the hundreds of coins tossed by wishful travellers. Still, even without running water, the marble details on the faces of the statues are iconic. The whole fountain is built around the façade of Palazzo Poli, with the ancient god Oceanus overlooking the carved hill riddled with several sculpted connotations. When I came back later that night to see the fountain in all its splendour, it didn’t disappoint. Even though it was almost midnight, the Fontana di Trevi was surrounded by hundreds of tourists, set on tossing their wishes into the bottom of the historic waterfall-like build. I strongly recommend visiting it during the night, for the lights illuminating the water and the marble gods are one of the highlights in the city.

From there, a short walk earlier that day had brought me to the Pantheon, another historical build of epic proportions defying belief. The former Roman temple, found in the Piazza della Rotunda, welcomes you in with an imposing portico, erected by eight massive granite columns quarried in Egypt. These are said to have been dragged to the Nile and barged all the way through the Mediterranean Sea to the Tiber River, in Rome. The height of the build will have you scratching your head as you try to figure out how such a thing was achieved.

When you enter this temple erected for the gods, you find a humongous hemispherical dome, adorned in terracotta and travertine tiles with its iconic oculus in the centre – a perfect circle into the sky – inviting a divine light within. The whole building possesses a disturbingly harmonious symmetry. I am not a religious person at all, but if there was ever a place where I felt holy, this was it. The intricately carved concrete dome, with its square crevasses ascending to the circle in the sky, feels like an ode to the heavens. The fact that this ancient build is, to this day, the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome, shows how humankind is capable of achieving the extraordinary, which in turn might help you draw your own epistemological conclusions.

By now, my two days in Rome were coming to a close, and it was time to face the crowds and visit Vatican City. I did not have time to visit the museums, and so I set my mind on visiting St. Peter’s Cathedral, the largest Catholic Church in the world. The relentless sun was at its peak when I reached St. Peter’s Square, and the queue to enter the Cathedral went almost around it. Note that you can pay to skip the queue, but I was happy to admire the square while I waited. The piazza is adorned by two fountains and a massive obelisk central to it; its edges are guarded by several marble columns. Just before you enter the Basilica, two Vatican officials will offer you paper cloaks in case you forgot to cover your shoulders or legs.

Inside, the size of the church alone will have you in awe. The high ceilings adorned in precious stone and gold capture the light of a building that seems to have been built for giants. The detail in the ceiling frescoes will have your neck hurt in no time, and the display of wealth and craftmanship is a sight to behold. Take your time to admire the attention to detail in this place. Every artifact is kept in pristine condition, and each detail has some history behind it. If you like to dwell into this, I strongly recommend a guide, or casually lend your ear to one as you walk past like I did. The amount of history in this place can be overwhelming, but if I had to choose a favourite piece would be Bernini’s monument to Pope Alexander VII. The tomb depicts the Pope above a bronze figure of death holding an hourglass, alluding to the all-important notion of Memento Mori. The white marble statues contrast richly with my favourite piece in all of Rome, a dark Sicilian jasper marble cloak holding the skeleton of death down.

By the time I left the Vatican, the idea that my two days in Rome were up started to sink in. I had arrived with low expectations and left with a huge dose of history and culture. I am aware that I left many landmarks unvisited – like the Vatican Museums, Galleria Borghese, Musei Capitolini – and many, many more. But I also left awestruck by the number of iconic things I was able to see in such a short amount of time, all within walking distance. I will hold Rome dear in my nostalgic memories for a long time. More importantly, I leave with the notion that I must come back to experience everything else this epic city has to offer.  

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