When in Rome...
They'd probably have thrown me to the lions for saying this, but for most part, I'd have been very happy on a hop-on, hop-off bus in Rome. Yes, you heard me right. I'm usually averse to everything touristy. But when you're in Rome for most part, there is just no escaping the crowded touristy circuit. So you might as well take comfort in numbers. Numbers of sights you've crossed off from your Roman bucket list, i.e. Or if you can afford it, take a walking tour of repute. There are too many stories in Rome that it would be a shame to miss it. As for me, I shamelessly eavesdropped on passing tours and their stories. If I ever return to Rome, I'm definitely taking a bit out of the spaghetti-wine fund and putting into a walking/guided tour. But as for the trip that was, here are some stories and some suggestions from it.
1. Colosseum, Arch of Constantine and Roman Forum. Get to the Colosseum early. The earlier the better. Or A bit later than 3.00 in the afternoon. Any other time and you'll be knocking elbows with hundreds of other tourists picturing Russell Crowe giving as good as he got to tigers and other worthy opponents. Chances are that you'll hear a guide rubbishing The Gladiator for factual incorrectness. Contempt never found a stronger medium than that the Italian accent. The rest, I'll leave to your imagination.
Tickets - 20 Euros
Hours - 8.30 am to one hour before sunset depending on the season
2. Trevi Fountain. This fountain enjoys the glamour of legend when one pauses to think of it. We see ourselves in a very definite setting - in quiet congress with the singing water, with Oceanus presiding over affairs as Abundance and Salubrity keep the enchantment of the night alive, as a quiet Rome reflects on a past too old for numbers. You think of it in black and white, like in Roman Holiday or La Dolce Vita. There’s a tang of sensuality, a certain whiff of romance that haunt your visions. And you cross seas, catch planes and walk the cobbled streets, your heart brimming with the expectation of seeing this vision in marble. You time it right - it has to be night time. And you arrive. At a crowded square, where you have to squeeze through people to a get a glimpse of the fountain. You’re obsessing about pickpockets and losing your companions in the crowd. You overhear your local language being spoken and you grimace. Of course, Rome’s most regal fountain would be swarming with tourists!! The Trevi fountain’s legend goes back to the 19th century BC. Though the fountain in its present state didn’t happen until the 18th century. Legend has it that a coin thrown into the fountain will ensure a return to Rome, two coins will bring you a goodlooking Italian to fall in love with (preferably with four wheels) and three coins will have you marrying the Italian you met! Clearly it costs more to find love than it costs to find air tickets.
3. Fontana Del Tritone. Trevi Fountain was such a disappointment that this one actually lifted our spirits up a little. It’s a much smaller fountain and nowhere near as popular. So we got a true Roman fountain feel at this square. One of Bernini’s creations, this 17th century creation depicts Triton as a merman. The fountain is just outside the Palazzo Barberini, which in turn has the most illustrious collection of Italian paintings at the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica.
4. Piazza Navona. If you choose to stay near this Piazza, your visit to Rome will be the magical experience that it is supposed to be. Sure it’s crowded. Sure it’s touristy. But it is connected to all important sights and you will have Rome waiting on you. The Baroque-style square is magnificent and it has three fountains - Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi or the Fountain of the Four Rivers (designed by Bernini), the Fontana del Moro (sculpted by Giacomo della Porta and later perfected by Bernini) and the Fontana del Nettuno or Fountain of Neptune (created by Giacomo della Porta). The Pantheon, Vatican, Trevi Fountain are all short walks from here.
5. Vatican. Unless you have the whole day and you’re armed with a guide or have some serious knowledge of history, the Vatican is wasted on you. Like it was for us. We got there a little before noon. Bought our tickets at the kiosk at the Metro station, ignored the guides at the gates (Rome is filled with tricksters) and just took the Vatican head on. We were reeling at the grandeur and the opulence, which were a huge eye-roll to all the humility, chastity and austerity crap years and years of Catholic upbringing had hammered into us. But it is beautiful and holds so much art and history. Tip. Go early and download a Vatican App.
6. The Sistine Chapel is overcrowded - that it felt like it was a beautifully frescoed intestine, waiting to eject you out of its passages at the first chance it gets. We autopiloted our way through it, exited and then later realised what we’d just breezed through with barely a look heavenward was the Sistine Chapel and dove right back into the crowd and fought against the tide to get a proper look at the Sistine Chapel. The sacred halls where popes are chosen and anointed; that showcase of various masterpieces that own the pride of the place in classical culture. The chapel was commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV in the fifteeth century and features the work of Michelangelo, Botticelli, Perugino and Luca. There was one thing I was determined to not miss in the Vatican and it was the Bramante Staircase, the double helix wonder that allows people who ascend the staircase to not meet the people who are descending. I went frantically asking about its whereabouts that one kindly couple let me have their map. But I didn’t have to worry because its at the end of the tour and I would inevitably come across it. But my panic gave me a nice story about the nice couple. And travel is nothing if I don’t have these lovely stories.
7. St. Peter’s Basilica. If anything, St. Peter’s Basilica is the definition of “awesome presence”. It took us so long to enter the church that we wondered if it were worth it. The line went from one corner of the courtyard that is St. Peter’s Square to the other. But it was worth it. The insides of the Basilica has no parallel in magnificence. The Basilica stands where St. Peter was buried after he was executed. The Pieta stands on the side, and encountering the real thing is a bit surreal after seeing replicas of varied sizes adorn a countless home altars. We didn’t climb to the top of the dome, which boasts a view that might knock you clean senseless. But after being on our feet all day, we weren’t up to the task. Ideally, visit St. Peter’s Basilica first and then go on to the Vatican. The Basilica is free entry but the climb is charged. 8€ to take the lift to the terrace and the climb of 320 steps. 6€ to climb all 551 steps by foot. I was rather taken up by the Swiss Guard. For a military so well equipped and so well-trained, I thought them to be rather geeky hot. Sahit did not approve of this observation.
8. Mouth of Truth. Everybody wants to put their hand into the Mouth of Truth. If you also want to, you can find the Bocca della Verità in the portico of Santa María in Cosmedin. While you’re there, do check out the skull of St. Valnetine himself - the saint of love in its glass shrine and the medieval choir enclosure.
9. Spanish Steps. We didn’t go there. But it’s apparently it’s one of Rome’s most popular squares.
10. Altare della Patria and Piazza Venezia. The home of the Italian Unknown Soldier, here is where Rome’s undying flame burns for the fallen soldier. This monument demands a lot out of the average traveller’s legs with all the climbing that is involved. But with the kind of views it offers, it is befitting that the monument dedicated to Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of unified Italy is like a veritable royal balcony, from which the monarch could look upon all of his kingdom.
11. Castel Sant Angelo. How do I begin to describe that feeling of spotting this fortress from across the Tiber. When Archangel Michael appears on the horizon, sheathing his fearsome sword. A host of angels welcome you on the Pont Sant' Angelo, a bridge so ancient that much water has indeed flowed under it. The evening was just setting down after a really hot day and the sun was just settling into its comfy clothes. The light was a perfectly turned out lemon soufflé. Somewhere on the Piazza, a street artist played his violin, filling the evening with charm and song. Something of the castle’s fearsome past haunts it yet. The legend goes that when Rome was besieged by a terrible plague, Archangel Michael came to Pope Gregory I in a dream and wiping blood off his sword and sheathing it. This led Pope Gregory to destroy many pagan places of worship in order to appease God. Another legend claims that Pope Gregory interpreted Archangel Michael’s appearance as the end of the plague. At sundown, the fortress turns into a storyteller. What began as a mausoleum for the Roman Emperor Hadrian was turned into a Medieval papal panic room of sorts in the 5th century. A fortified corridor built in 1277 connects the Vatican City to the castle, so that the Pope always had an escape route should his life be in danger. The castle also served as a prison and held many a historical figure were held prisoner or executed within these walls. The castle was one of Rome’s tallest building and it remembers that part of its history well by offering yet, some of the best views of the city. There were more lines of tourists waiting to go in. So we chose to just hangout at the Piazza with the street violinist and the angels and this Roman sunset that was busy turning everything around us into pearl and alabaster.
12. Pantheon. The Pantheon was one of the few free-entry sights Rome offered us. And it was packed to the gills. But it still takes your breath away for this sheer size and that it’s an edifice of that time when Rome was ROME. Built in 126 AD, it was gifted to the Pope Boniface IV in the seventh century. He turned it into a church which probably prevented it from being torn down as other pagan worship sites were. The Pantheon is the resting place of many Italian kings and proud sons including the Renaissance artist Raphael. The dome of the Pantheon has a skylight that gives you a glimpse of the sky and lets natural light in as it has done for time immemorial. Just then, as you stand with your eyes turned upwards to the ceiling, you feel time riffle back a few centuries worth of chapters. For a split second, the crowd disappears and you’re a pagan, deep in her worship - it’s just you and the sky.
13. Largo di Torre Argentina. Believed to be the actual site of Julius Caesar’s brutal murder, this archaeological site has been taken over by cats. You can’t help but wonder if the Goddess Bast found favour in Julius Ceasar and hence sends her tribe to watch over the place.
14. Trastevere. The other neighbourhood where you should stay if Piazza Navona is too touristy for you. This is one of Rome’s most charming neighbourhoods. The food is authentic, the sights are near and you’ll find yourself in some really good company.
15. Church. If you see a church, don’t think. Just duck in. And you’ll be amazed. Every church in Rome is an extravaganza of renaissance art. But if you do want a checklist of magnificent churches, here are a few: Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore; San Giovanni in Laterano (the official cathedral of Rome); Santa Maria Sopra Minerva (built on the site of the temples dedicated to Roman Goddess Minerva, Egyptian Goddess Isis and Greco-Egyptian god Serapis; Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo (built to dispel fears that Emperor Nero’s ghost was haunting that neighbourhood); Santa Cecilia in Trastevere; Santa Maria in Trastevere (with its unique Byzantine mosaics; Santa Maria in Aracoeli (ornate beyond belief)
16. Roam in Rome. Always look for local favourites when it comes to food. Though Cafe Cafe near the Colosseum was really good, I’m not sure how other places near tourist sites are. Definitely check out the Mercato Centrale located at the Roma Termini station. The food is divine. Eat the spaghetti, drink the wine and just be careful of your wallet. Rome is notorious. Choose the bus over the Metro. You'll find that Rome can indeed be charming, despite the crowds, the overpriced food and other bummers.