What can I write about Rome that has not been written before? The eternal city, filled with the aroma of freshly ground coffee wafting through the streets, the sound of espresso being made, the monuments, the legendary Italian gelato (to die for….. trust me), walking around cobblestone streets with hidden corners and piazza’s, the iconic vespas lined up in small alleys, vivid colours on plates, the flowers and trees in bloom, people -watching and definitely the history and the art. I think very few cities can rival the mass of art there is to see and admire in this city; from Michelangelo to Bernini, Raphael and Caravaggio, the Pantheon, Colosseum, Fontana di Trevi, Castel Sant’Angelo, tens if not hundreds of pretty churches (some ornately decorated, some very sober), L’Altare della patria from which you have a panoramic view over the Piazza Venezia with traffic whizzing by. Story goes that inside the horses, a dinner for the workers was once organised – the table seated 12 people.
Vatican City is clearly a very popular place to visit. It is actually a State City, meaning that with its 44 hectares it actually is the smallest state in the world, in both size and population. As such it is actually not sovereign but governed by the Holy See, the central point of reference for the Catholic Church internationally. My last visit to the Vatican was made unforgettable, as our group was invited to mass underneath the Basilica of St. Peter, in the catacombs and a visit of what lies underneath this beautiful Basilica. Aside from St. Peter’s tomb, there are several chapels with legends and stories attached.
One of the chapels contains a mosaic of the Virgin Mary, which was damaged by a German soldier during WWII. Legend has it that the soldier in question, young healthy and strong, died 2 days after his act.
One of the most impressive chapels is the Clementine Chapel (or La Clementina) which is located in the grottos underneath the Basilica. In this area, the skull of St Peter was venerated in medieval times, before it was removed to be housed at the Archbasilica of St. John’s Lateran. The whole chapel is truly impressive, decorated in gold (from the South Americas) from top to bottom. Pius VII was imprisoned by Napoleon and, seeing the latter needed money for soldiers’ wages, wanted to take all the gold and richnesses he could. To protect the chapel, all the gold was covered in black paint so it would be hidden away from the French. In later restorations, most of the black paint was removed, although here and there, you can still see faded black paint remaining.
As lucky as we were, the Pope was holding mass on the square outside the Basilica, so we did not manage to have an audience, but we were lucky enough to have the Basilica to ourselves (and security of course), as this will be closed when the Pope reads mass outside. If you have time, please do visit the Vatican Museums, where you can see the Sistine Chapel, which is not to be missed. Please do note that in the Vatican Museums you can take photos (no flash though!) but no photo or video in the Sistine Chapel. There is plenty of security that will notice so I wouldn’t even try (not even a sneaky mobile shot) as you will be removed from the premises. The reason for this is that the restoration works, that took 20 years, came with a hefty price tag of a few million dollars. the tender was won by Nippon TV (Japan) and came with the condition that they have the exclusive rights to photos and videos of the location. Although the agreement ended quite some years ago, the ban on photo and video remained in place to protect the art. Given the damage thousands of tourist camera flashes can do, the ban remained. To give you and idea, almost 4 million people visit the chapel each year.
Other places to definitely visit in Rome, are plenty and this is definitely not an exhaustive list:
the Colosseum – built in the 1st century after Christ, was the largest amphiteathre in the Roman Empire. Walking through the naves and climbing the stairs, you can still hear the clattering of swords of the Gladiator fights, or imagine the sea battles (yes apparently the Romans filled the arena with million litres of water to re-ennact famous ship battles) and animal fights organised by the ruling emperor, to entertain the masses.
Villa Borghese and the Bioparco di Roma, Although the name does not divulge it, the Villa Borghese is actually a park, rather then a villa. The area’s name comes from the founding family, the family Borghese, who in the 16th century, and over the years, expanded it size. Nowadays it is a public park, which also hosts a number of museums, pavilions and sculptures. the Bioparco di Roma is situated just next to the actual Villa Borghese, and in the public park. The zoo was inaugurated in 1911 and celebrated it’s 100 years a few years back. In line with the World Zoo Conservation Strategy (the Bioparco plays an active role in environmental education and the conservation of endangered species. The park is home to a vast number of different animals, such as giraffes, elephants, tigers, chimpanzees, crocodiles, lamas, reptiles, fish, lizards, chameleons and many more. Definitely worth a stop for a few hours!
The Pantheon was originally not a church but a temple, and it’s names means “dedicated to all gods”. After the fall of the roman empire, the building was gifted to Pope Bonifatius IV who transformed it into a church, which is the reason it was never destroyed but preserved. These days, the church is dedicated to the Holy Mary and the Masters, and is an active church. This means that on certain times of day, mass will be held and visitors will be not be allowed in.
One of my favourite spots in Rome, the Fontana di Trevi is located at the Piazzi di Trevi, a small piazza located in the centre of the city. Designed by Bernini, it was built a good 50 years later, and leans against the back of the Palazzo Pole. The name Trevi comes from the location of the fountain and the piazza. It stands for three roads or three ways, as three roads used to come out on the square. The myth of the Trevi fountain is very well known. If you throw in one coin, you will return to Rome. Two coins would mean that the thrower will meet the love of their live in the eternal city. Three coins would bring for a marriage or a divorce. This practice of throwing coins also makes this a money making fountain, the proceeds which are donated to Roman good causes. In 2016, 1.4 million euro was fished out of the fountain!
The Spanish Steps are a sweeping staircase located between the Piazza di Spagna and the Piazza Trinita dei Monti on top. Counting 135 steps, it is a very popular place to sit and eat ice-cream for both tourists and locals. At the base of the steps, you can also see the Fontana della Barcaccia (the Fountain of the Ugly Boat) which was built in 1623 as part of a project of the then ruling Pope to have a fountain on each square in Rome. The square owes it’s name to the Palazzo di Spagna, located on the square, which is the seat of the Embassy for Spain amongst the Holy See. Nearby you can also see the Column of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. The steps have been used over the years in movies, lyrics and video clips such as (just to name a few) Bob Dylan, Audrey Hepburn, The Talented Mr. Ripley with Matt Damon, Graziano Cecchini and the Man from UNCLE (2015)
Castel Sant’Angelo was originally built as a mausoleum for Roman Emperor Hadrian and his family. Later on it was used as a castle and a fortress and currently functions as a museum. Legend holds that the archangel Michael appeared on top of the mausoleum, and sheathed his sword to announce the end of the plague of 590 ac, thus giving the name to the castle. Another legend holds that both a traveller and Pope Gregory I saw an angel appear on top of the building, wiping blood from his sword and sheathing it. If you visit, please also take a stroll over the Ponte Sant’Angelo, which leads up to the Castel. It is a roman bridge, constructed by Hadrian to connect the city centre to his newly built mausoleum, spanning the river Tiber. The bridge is overseen by 10 angels, guarding the pilgrims on their way to St. Peter’s Basilica, as this was the only way to reach the Basilica, after the destruction of Nero’s Bridge, in the middle ages. The angels are the Angel with the Column, with the Whips, with the crown of thorns, with Veronica’s veil (the Sudarium), with the Garment and dice, with the nails, with the cross, with the Superscription, with the sponge and the angel with the lance; all holding the instruments of the passion.
Also some quick practical tips: Rome hosts a vast and varied going out life. Rather than having cafés like abroad, you can have a coffee in one of the hundreds of coffee shops. Please do note that your espresso, had at the bar, standing up, will be cheaper than when you have it sitting down on the terrace. This is as you pay a cover charge for sitting down. You may want to be a little assertive when ordering your cappuccino and cornet, when it is busy, else you will be waiting a long time. Eye contact with the barista behind the counter will help tremendously. Second tip would be at restaurants. Tap water is perfectly safe to drink, so feel free to order this rather than bottled water. Even in summer it will come crystal clear out of the tap, and is cooling and refreshing (even from the drinking fountains scattered around the city!). Often you will be served bread and butter at the table, but often you will be asked to pay extra for this (a little surprise from my first visit, as where I live, this is free of charge). Lastly, a lot of restaurants have an antipasti buffet, which is relatively cheap. A large plate often sets you back only about 8 – 10€, and offers a vast selection of different antipasti. Often these include cold cuts and other meats, salads, filled eggs, stuffed mushrooms and so on. Ideal if you want to have a taste of the famous Italian food. Do note that although this is a buffet, you will be charged per plate taken, so if you go twice, you will pay 2 x the price for a plate! Also, the buffet does not get refilled to keep the food items as fresh as possible. Once the serving plate is empty, it will remain empty until the next meal.
I do not know what it is that I love about this city, I think it is a combination of all and nothing in specific. It mystifies me, makes me see places and buildings through different eyes, shows me different angles, let’s me take 1000 photos each time I am there and still let’s me discover it slowly a little more with each visit.
It seems that the myth of the coin throwing in the Fontana di Trevi works. At least, it seems to be working for me, as I’ve been throwing one coin in the fountain each time I go to Rome…. so next time I’m over, I’ll throw one in again, let’s not take any risks!
Arrivederci bella Roma, until next time!