And so to Rome, the capital city and historical centre. We’d been told about a campsite that had links to some of the others we’d stayed in that was on the outskirts of the city, so headed there. It was a great place – good size so you didn’t feel on top of each other, nice facilities (a shower where you don’t have to pay for the hot water and therefore be on a timer and bathrooms with supplied loo roll become increasingly appreciated!) and a lovely pool. It was also easy to get into Rome via train, so suited us down to the ground.
This was Karen’s first time in Rome, but Marcello had been a couple of times before, so was able to act as tour guide. We had three days to take in the sites – just about enough to see the main attractions without killing ourselves. The train from the campsite goes into the Flaminio station, so Karen’s first impression of Rome was of the Piazza del Popolo, with its gateway, fountains and twin churches. An impressive start! This first day we took in the Spanish steps, the Trevi fountain, the Piazza Venezia, the Pantheon, the Piazza Navona and with a quick swing past the Colosseum and other ancient ruins around the Roman Forum. On top of all of this on foot, we also got tickets for one of the open-bus tours, which allowed us to see some of those sites we wouldn’t have necessarily made it to and hear a bit more of the history. So what started as a quick scout around to see what we wanted to go back to the next day ended up being an 11 hour day of sightseeing in 36 degree heat, with sore feet at the end of it! With so much to see this is hardly surprising and another example of how it’s very easy to underestimate the amount of time you need to do things.
The next day we set off early with the aim of getting to the Colosseum before the queues emulated its holding capacity. The arena, what many people associate with Rome the most, is no less impressive than you would expect. The inside didn’t fare quite as well as the outside structure, but to be able to climb to the third level and look out over what would have been the main floor sets your imagination running. Despite the drawings and explanations around the ruin, it’s still difficult not to picture the likes of the film Gladiator though! It was also fascinating to see recreations of what Nero’s empire would have looked like – the site of the Colosseum being on what used to be a lake – and trying to imagine the decadence of it all.
After the Colosseum we headed to the other of Rome’s most famous landmarks, the Vatican. Rome certainly has some very large and very impressive buildings, but St Peter’s Cathedral must top them all. We think it may have been knocked down to second place in terms of being the biggest cathedral in the world (a quick Google search didn’t manage to resolve this), but from the outside, if it wasn’t for the dome, it would be hard to believe that this huge building was in fact a cathedral.
First thing was first: having a laugh at the Swiss Guards’ expense (out of earshot of course). Karen thought they looked like court jesters, but maybe that’s their defence – to fool their enemies into thinking they look like wusses! Next we took to the 500+ steps to the “top” of the dome. Luckily it wasn’t as hard going as it sounds, but it’s not a climb for the claustrophobic as the steps get very narrow towards the top. As well as the unmatched view you get across the city of Rome and the Vatican – making you appreciate just how large some of the landmarks are – you also get to see the frescos of the dome up close, plus a view down into the cathedral. The day we were there was a public festival and as we were looking down a big service was just finishing and the priest leaving was surrounded by guards. Highly unlikely, but in our minds (okay, mainly Karen’s) it was the Pope!
The inside of the cathedral is even more impressive. Intricate statues (including Michelangelo’s stunning Piéta, finished when he was just 24), frescos, murals, gold everywhere, not to mention the huge bronze alter that stands over St Peter’s final burial site. You can’t help questioning the decadence of it all considering how much of the Church’s focus is on fundraising. However, the human race has been paying homage to its god or gods for centuries by building grand shrines and there’s no denying its importance to the Catholic faith in terms of paying respect and giving thanks to God. Not to mention its significance to the world of art.
Our final full day in the city saw another early start and a trip to the Sistine Chapel. Or at least that was the aim. Unfortunately what we thought was just a one-day festival turned out to be Fera Agosto, a two-dayer, and it was closed. Very disappointing, but it gave Karen yet another reason to throw a coin into the Trevi fountain that night to ensure she returned to Rome one day.
With the Sistine Chapel off limits, we went back to St Peter’s for another look around. Returning at a different time meant some of the areas that were roped off the previous day were now accessible, including the statue of St Peter that so many queue up to rub the toe of and the remarkable alter. We were also able to go down into the grottoes where many of the former popes are buried and you can still see some of the foundations of the former basilica. Despite having spent some time there the day before, we easily filled another couple of hours feasting on the visual delights all around.
And talking of feasting, we couldn’t leave Rome without having a few slices of pizza and a suppli to munch on while we walked. Marcello took Karen to a place he’d been to on his last visit and it didn’t disappoint – foccacia filled with spinach, pizza with rosemary and potato (much nicer than it might sound) and the suppli, which is a ball of risotto rice with mozzarella inside. Yum. So much so, that when Marcello dropped some of his on the street, he only hesitated for a second before picking it up and eating it. Well, as he puts it, he is African! (Admittedly, not that Karen would have done any differently …)
That evening we came back into the City for dinner (yup, more food!), to see some of the sites lit up in their full glory and take in the buzz of the city at night. We enjoyed a drink in front of the Pantheon, before indulging in the local speciality of pasta amatriciana whilst being serenaded by an old crooner – actually quite good for once. On the way back to the station we went via the Trevi fountain, which is even more spectacular at night, so Karen could throw in her coin. A fitting end to our time in Rome.
Rome, known as the eternal city, is Marcello’s favourite city in Europe and Karen could see why. You could return time and again and still discover or see something new. Every corner you turn around you’re greeted with either ruins, piazzas, monuments, fountains … it seems no street goes without something impressive to look at, and this, in our minds, is what makes Rome so special. If you haven’t been already, get booking that ticket.