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I visited here with two student friends in 2003, on a mission to soak up a lot of culture, have a great time and not spend much money, and we did pretty well on all counts. After sitting through years of torturous Latin lessons at school, I had high hopes for the city. We managed to find possibly the strangest hotel in Rome to stay in, the Hotel Giarda, near Stazione Termini, where they monitored our every movements through strategically placed security cameras, and the chamber maids had a good daily rifle through our luggage, but other than that it was well situated for exploring.
Here are my top Roma sights (in no particular order):
Vatican City: Even though this is slap bang in the middle of Rome, the Vatican is technically an independent state, with the Pope as sovereign, its own post office and legal system, and definitely the highest concentration of priests, nuns and medievally clad Swiss Guards in the world. It is small, only 109 acres, but jam-packed with great sights. St. Peter's Square is entered through Bernini's pillared colanade atopped by the stautes of 140 saints, to be welcomed by magnificent fountains and a huge obelisk from the Nile Delta. The massive Basillica looms up before you, with the brown papal apartments and museums behind. When I visited, the Pope had just been out on the balcony, and we had to go through extensive security checks and bag searches to gain entry. The Vatican is simply full of history. The basillica was built to honour St. Peter, who was crucified on the site in AD64. The high-Renaissance-Baroque architecture is truely impressive, and it is breathtakingly vast inside. There are many points of interest, including tombs of popes, Bernini's glorius twisted columned baldacchio which rests over the papal alter, and works by Raphael and Michaelangelo, the most famous of which is the lovely Pieta, a majestic marble statue of Mary and the infant Jesus. For good luck, worshippers touch the very worn down foot of a bronze statue of St. Peter by di Cambio. The greatest part of the basilica to visit is the dome. There is a small fee to climb the 320 steps from the elevator station, and this is even cheaper if you by-pass the lift and climb an extra 170 steps. To get to the top is not for the claustrophobic or faint-hearted, with a neck-wrenching (to accommodate the roof of the dome) struggle through hoards of tourists in a tiny stairwell, but the view is absolutely spectacular. You can see the whole city, and most of the other sights. I was there at sunset, and the pink and golden skies made the view even more unforgetable. Before visiting the basilica I looked around the vast 13th century vatican museums, which are only open in the mornings. They contain the treasures accumulated by centuries of popes. A number of colour-coded routes are offered to help you judge your time plan. We took the second longest tour, which took about four hours, but we managed to see all of the main attractions, including the splendidly decorated Borgia Appartments, the Renaissance style Raphael rooms, decorated by the man himself, and the Chapel of St. Nicholas V, frescoed by Fra Angelico. The Chiaramonte Museum holds Greek, Roman, Christan and pagan works of art and ornaments, and the Collection of Madern Religious Art has 55 rooms displaying Picasso, Henry Moore and others. Older 11-19 century paintings and tapestries are housed in the Pinacoteca, with works by da Vinci, Titian, Bellini, Caravaggio, Giotto and Raphael. There is also the Pio Clementino Museum of sculpture, and a few sections I didn't get to see including an Etruscan, Ethnological and Egyptian displays. All routes lead to the piece de resistance, the 550 year old Sistene Chapel, which I found very different to what I imagined. It is a huge room, bursting at the seems with tourists of a thousand nations, and doesn't have a very reverent atmosphere. This is made even less so, by the team of security guards who shout every ten seconds for everyone to be silent, thus making it even more noisy. Michaelangelo's frescoes are very special though, with the famous ceiling depicting the book of Genesis. Shopping wise the Vatican is excellent for souvenirs, and very cheap. You can buy anything from a flashing Virgin Mary worthy of Father Ted, to a huge range of serious religious books, and icons. I bought a St. Christopher pendent for just 20p. After leaving the museum, we were in desparate need of ice cream. Aspying a small stall opposite the exit, packed with nuns, who are a good indicator of quality gelati, we headed over to discover the best ice-cream in Rome. We picked a £1.50 cone and the vendor kept piling on flavours of our choice, until we were wielding huge clubs of the stuff, and it was delicious.
Night time ice cream by the Trevi Fountain: Ice cream featured heavily in my holiday, and generally revolved around this beautiful square after dinner where there are several parlours to chose from. The tiny square is packed at night, but not just by tourists. The Italians eat, drink and sleep late, and everyone seems to congregate around here just to chat and meet friends. The fountain itself is most beautiful at night, when the floodlights bring out every detail of the baroque marble, and give the whole square a soft, romantic atmosphere. The fountain was built in 1762, and features Neptunus Rex standing in a shell chariot drawn by winged steeds and led by a pair of tritons. The beautiful statues at the side represent health and fertility. The way it just seems to burst out of the marble wall of the building behind, makes it even more beautiful.
Catacombs: there is a direct bus which travels along the Via Appia Antiqua. This popped up quite a lot in school lesson Latin, but it was a lot more modern than I imagined. In my head I still had images of crucifictions lining the sides of a empty dusty throughfare, but in fact it is more concrete shops and tarmac. There are still plenty of tombs though leading out on the ancient road, which was built in 312B.C., to the Catacombs. These are an amzing 12 mile long series of underground tunnels where Christians held services and buried their dead in times of oppression. There are 200,000 tombs, including those of 16 third century popes and St. Celcilia, the saint of music, who was suffocated, before receiving three axe strokes to the neck and still failing to die, becoming a martyr. The only way to go underground is on a tour, which are run frequently in the most common European languages. Even though the groups are large, the leaders are clear and dynamic, stopping off to let you gather around and hear stories about the tiny chapels, murals and burial sights.
The Pantheon (Piazza della Rotonda): as breath-taking as a building can get, simply due to it's shear size. It looks unnaturally huge, situated in a small square surrounded by the umbrellas of several restaurants. It is the last complete building of ancient Rome, and it really brought home to me what amazing architects and engineers the Romans were. It is a perfect sphere resting on a perfect cylinder, and was begun by Hadrian (of wall fame) in 120AD, so is a whopping 1900 years old, and served as the burial place of ancient rulers, Raphael, and a site of animal sacrifice. There is not a vast deal to do once inside, but it is free to enter, and worth the time just to marvel at the huge vastness of the construction.
The Coloseum (Via dei Fori Imperiali): the 2000 year old structure is still magnificent even though its marble has been pilfered to build churches around the city. It is still very easy to imagine the scenes that went on here as you walk around the tiers, which held 50,000 spectators, and view the underground system of cells, where the gladiators and animals were kept before battle. From the viewing platform, the Forum and the Arch of Constantine stand before you, both of which are in easy walking distance, and are free to look around. Outside several "gladiators" are waiting to have their picture taken with you for a fee, but unfortunately none of them are quite in the shape of Russell Crowe.
Other gems of Rome include:
Early evening on the Spanish steps (Piazza di Spagna), where people gather to sit and enjoy the sun setting and the scent of the beautiful flowers planted alongside the steps.
The Church of the Immaculate Conception (Via Vittario Veneto): a series of small chapels feature the bones and skulls of thousands of Capuchin monks arranged into mosaics.
Santa Maria in Cosmedin: a sixth century church with the stone Bocca della Verita (mouth of truth), which reputedly chomps off your hand if you are a liar. A great tacky photo opp.
Vittoria Emmanuele Monument (Piazza Venezia): a gigantic wedding cake of a monument built to celebrate the first king of Italy, which also contains the tomb of the unknown soldier and th Altar of the Fatherland, and is patrolled by rather sadistic guards, who scream at pensioners that have collapsed on the long flight of steps. But neverminding them, there is a wonderful view of the Vatican from the top.
The Santuario della Scala Santa (opposite Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano): one of the most holy sights in Christiandom - the steps that Jesus climbed when he was bought before Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem. They were brought to Rome to form the stairway to the Pope's private chapel in AD326, and are now on the side of the road for everyone to revere.
And some disappointments:
Circus Maximus: the great venue of I, Claudius now looks like a playing field in Peckham, and there is nothing really here, apart from the rough shape that would give away it's past. The only reason to come here is just to say you've been.
Trastevere: the guide books told me this was Rome's "most authentic" district, with a mixed-heritage Bohemian culture. It is nice enough, but a little rough around the edges and nothing to write home about. I was a bit disappointed that I wasted my last morning in Rome here.
Handy tips for sight seeing in Rome:
Carry your EC passport as this gets you substantial discounts at the main sights, including the Coloseum. If you forget it, you can even talk yourself in with your driving license. There are also several sights with student rates for ISIC card holders, including the Vatican.
Use nuns to cross the road. It's true what they say - this is the only way to stop the traffic.
Shopping: when we asked a mafia-related friend of one of my companions (the only Italian we knew), he recommended us to the district of Tiburtino for bargains. A short bus journey and walk through a slightly dodgy getto, brought us to somewhere not exactly as glamorous as Via Condotti, but packed with bargain-worthy shops. These were especially good for leather goods, and I snaffled a gorgeous pair of genuine Italian made leather boots for £20. The only thing I'd say about coming here is do it early in the day. We didn't fancy walking back through the getto in the dark, so hopped on a bus, and had to drive on a very circuitous journey for a good hour before we got back to somewhere we recognised. For souvenirs, an unusual option is Ai Monasteri (72 Corso del Rinascimento, Piazza Navona), which sells herbal essences, liquers and soaps all made by the traditional recipes of a band of local monks.
Food wise, it's no surprise that the menus mainly feature pasta and pizza, which is generally pretty cheap. However, if you want to have any form of meat or vegetables, this will set you back at least £12 a dish. Being on a budget, I went without, and found myself totally craving anything that wasn't made of carbohydrates by the end of my holiday. Snackwise, small shops sell pizza by the slice - you chose the size and they weigh it - and wonderful tramezzini toasted sandwiches, which are a great cheap meal. Breakfast in my hotel was canned fruit cocktail, bread and knockout strength black coffee or super-frothy cappucinos.
The transport system in Rome is very good, despite the rather frenetic driving skills of the bus drivers. There is a comprehensive underground network, in which as opposed to the tube in London where everyone pretends there is noone else in their carridge, the Italians stare aggressively into each others eyes for the duration of the journey. As tourists we got more than our fair share of this, and no amount of glaring back changes the situation. Tram / metro / bus passes are available for a week's unlimited travel for around £9. The railway system is equally as efficient. I took a day trip to Florence during my stay, which only took a couple of hours on the fast train. The ticket office was very helpful at Termini station, and the only thing to remember is the need to validate your ticket in the small machine on the platform before bordering the train to avoid a fine. We made the huge mistake of risking the chance of a bargain flights with Sabena, who promptly collapsed halfway through our holiday, so I was able to experience both of the airports serving Rome. Fuimicino is the mother hub, with the brilliant 30 minute Leonardo Express train straight to Stazione Termini in the centre of Rome running hourly. Ciampino airport seems a bit of a provincial cousin, but is still very easy to get to by direct bus from the terminus outside Termini rail station.
Apart from the unnerving staring, the Roman people were very welcoming and friendly - my Indain friend with blue (contact-lensed) eyes was continually being heralded as a miracle by nuns and had several rosaries bestowed upon her. I would count Rome as the most interesting place I have ever been to. All those things you hear about in history, in the bible, and see on films actually happened, and a lot of them happened here. I made sure I followed the legend and threw a coin into the Trevi fountain, and I cannot wait to return to the beautiful Eternal City. (By the way, I apologize to any Italians for my spelling!)