I was so excited after checking in after my train from Venice that I immediately wanted to get something done in Rome, so walked the twenty minutes or so from the hostel, down a main street and park (dodgy, not again Google Maps) to the Colosseum. I just had to see it as fast as I could, being this close.
I stopped to take photos from the outside and it was actually impressively big to the eye, not ruined by pictures I’d seen. It was like a golden trophy and as I skipped through the huge queue outside with my reservation, I definitely felt like something had been won. I didn’t spend long in the small museum inside, but rather on level 2 where you get the best views of the seating and arena. Imagining it in it’s hey-day is pretty difficult, but is helped by the section of sand coloured arena flooring. I didn’t have a tour group, but downloaded Rick Steve’s audio guide to take me round.
The ticket I reserved also gave me entrance to Palestine Hill and the Roman Forum, which take around two hours to complete, which I did in the evening sunlight. Being here took me back to my classics A-level classes and it was a little overwhelming standing where Caesar was assassinated. Here, I found it easier to see Rome in it’s glory days and the more I wandered around the city, the more I saw how it all linked up and that this was indeed the centre of that vast Empire. How can so many of their building survive? Lots of slaves were used to build them but also the skill and mathematics they used mean they rarely damage in earthquakes, although they do have to face up to the modern pollution of the city these days.
With a stop by Vittorio Emmanuel II and a quick bite of pasta, I was back in bed ready for day number two. My reservation for the Vatican was at 9.30 but as I arrived early and saw the immense queue, I opted to upgrade and skip, which is possible with a tour guide. This worked out well because inside it was manic! As the Vatican is it’s own country separate from Italy, you have to go through security and with 30,000 visitors a day and large groups stopping right in the middle of gangways, having an experienced guide to direct and inform, I think, is necessary on a visit. The museums here are numerous and huge so it’s possible to get lost for however brief a time, as when it closes, security remove everyone inside.
Highlights of the Vatican were seeing the grounds and artwork therein, including the biggest surviving head of a statue from Roman times, and of course the chimney where the decision on a new Pope is announced to the world. I loved exploring here as it was so ornate and perfect, but in what I imagine is an unpopular view, I was not blown away by the Sistine Chapel. It was obviously impressive and the story of Michaelangelo going blind and hurting his back as he completed it adds to the meaning, but I couldn’t get excited about actually being there and seeing it. For me, it turned out to be something to simply tick off the list. Anyone thought similar?
While here, you can also visit the Pope’s burial chambers, which have a sombre, reflective atmosphere, walls and walls of tapestries and the huge St. Peter’s Basilica that backs on to St. Peter’s Square. The Cathedral is immeasurably high and makes you feel like an ant, all without looking a day old as it’s so clean. After completing the Vatican, which takes about three hours, stay in St. Peter’s Square for a while to take it in, and cool down by the fountain (but don’t get too close as the police here beep their car horns if tourists put their hands in the water, having passed the barriers).
Back in Italy, I returned to the Roman Empire by walking through narrow, cobbled streets to the famous Pantheon. While the Sistine Chapel didn’t do it, this building truly blew me away and I still think about it now, writing this a week later. The dome ceiling and the entire structure is awe-inspiring and in my opinion, it’s the best way to feel what Rome may have been like at it’s peak, in full techno-colour rather than the grey, sandy appearance of ruins around the city. A picture here speaks a 1000 words and is the only thing to do it justice, as sunlight cascades through the only light source in the centre of the dome.
For the rest of the day, I walked and walked. I saw the Trevi Fountain, ascended the Spanish steps, sat in Piazzo Navona to recover my breath and sought gelato in the nearby streets. Looping past Castle D’angelo, I headed back to clean my sweaty self and be ready for day three.
Apparently my easy day visiting Rome, I got up and walked back past the Colosseum through a not so dodgy park as I couldn’t bare the thought I’d only see it the once. My destination this time was the Pyramid of Cestius, which is also by the cemetery where the British poet John Keats is buried, after having died in Rome at a young age. Seeing a pyramid in this setting made me smile, reminding me of the Despicable Me scene where the villain steals a pyramid and paints it like the sky so no one will notice!
Next up, along with Rick Steve, I went to the old Jewish Ghetto, which actually backs onto the Pantheon. Here there’s a bridge and island through which the ghetto was connected to main Rome when Jews were oppressed to the extent they had to live in this one area. Today, there are many religious buildings and a large synagogue that has pretty tight security, highlighting that there is still some animosity. For lunch, I went to Fonzie! in some part because it’s similar to my nickname, but mainly because they make the best kosher burgers in all of Rome. Delicious.
Fuelled up, it was time to walk the river to Castle D’Angelo and get some panoramic views of the city and the Vatican. Outside, amongst the street sellers and souvenirs, I had a moment of having done what I felt like was enough and wasn’t sure it was worth going up, especially as they didn’t take card and I had no cash. Saying to myself as I frequently do, ‘I might not get the chance again’, I found an ATM and without a queue, headed to the top. I really recommend going in the castle, it’s great value for money and the views are perfect as you’re situated between the Vatican and Vittorio Emmanuel II.
Now, this should have actually been enough, but I’d heard that some of the best views in Rome could be found from Gianicolo Park. I scaled up here, and it really is up from the Castle and it was not worth the effort at all seeing as the greenery blocked most of the view! I thought about kick-starting an argument on Trip Advisor but each to their own! After this and 26k steps, I planned to walk the fifty minutes back to my accommodation but (and I barely remember doing this) walked onto a bus instead that stopped right by me and took me back to the central train station where my hostel was situated. Phew!
When in Rome, take my lead and throw yourself in head first. I didn’t miss anything on my list but seeing just half of these sights would have been enough as literally everything in Rome is amazing, so much so that I could have written an essay for this post, but just stuck to the highlights. I also didn’t go overboard on the foodie front; I saved that for Florence.