For our first day in Rome, we hit the streets for a walking tour of the city’s historic core. The tour began at the, for reasons beyond my grasp, famous Spanish Steps, which are just plain old steps done in an old Spanish style. From there we squeezed past the crowds in the narrow streets to the even more crowded, but actually impressive, Trevi Fountain. The Trevi Fountain is a beautiful piece of art, on an impressive scale (26 metres tall x 50 metres wide), and definitely lived up to the hype. From the fountain we wandered through relatively uneventful streets and alleyways, until we reached the over-sized Vittorio Emmanuel II Monument, which is the definition of over-the-top self-aggrandising; and just beyond it, lay the real highlights of the tour, and Rome in general, the Forum, Palatine Hill, and the Colosseum. Granted we never went into any of these sites that day, but merely walking past and around them was impressive and awe inspiring, and the little tidbits, mostly reminders of their respective ages (i.e. thousands of years old), that the guide added just reinforced their grandeur. The tour concluded at the Colosseum with us looking up, mouths agape.
On day two we ventured out of Rome, about 30-minutes by train, and some 2,000 years, to Ostia Antica. Ostia Antica is an impressive, and large, historical site of the once vital Roman port city of Ostia, one of Rome’s earliest colonies, complete with well-preserved buildings and mosaics. We wandered about the magnificent ruins of the ancient city for the entire day, seeking shade as often as possible from the incredibly intense sun. From the poor’s tenements to large, upper class villas, the markets, the forum, the large amphitheatre, and grand public baths, complete with ancient toilets, Ostia Antica had it all. The most impressive of which, were the large sections of preserved mosaics and marble facades from the public baths and villas. It did not take much effort to picture Ostia Antica in its prime as a booming port town of 40,000 people.
We spent our third day in Rome soaking up the grandeur of old Rome with a visit to Palatine Hill and the Forum, both of which sat at the centre of ancient Rome. While Palatine Hill was interesting and large in scope, the Forum, which was the true heart of Rome, was amazing in every sense: its scale, its architecture, and its importance. We stood beneath massive, ancient arches and columns (perfectly square and aligned, some 2,000 years later, yet I doubt there is a level surface in our condo that was built two years ago); we stood on the spot were Julius Caesar was stabbed and subsequently burned; and stood in the centre surrounded by all the ancient Roman institutions that have shaped our modern world. If you ever need a reason to go to Rome, the Forum is all you need.
The next day we got a tour of the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), courtesy of Valentina’s friend, and our lovely host in Rome, Maribel. Maribel toured us around her office, the conference rooms, and assembly halls where the “magic” (or: bickering at an international level) happens. We wrapped up our tour with UN-member-state tax-payer subsidised lunch atop the building, which offered wonderful views of Rome and the Vatican in the distance. After our visit to FAO we spent the rest of the afternoon at the Colosseum. Which can only be described as super cool. Again, the scale, scope and feat of architectural genius that the Colosseum is, was simply amazing. There is an endearing charm and fascination that arises when you walk up the same steps, sit on the same stones and look out at the same views as the Romans had some 2,000 years ago.
But, the most impressive of the Roman relics was the Pantheon. It was simply stunning. It is the definition of perfection, if only from the fact that more than two-thousand years after it was completed, it is still the world’s largest, unreinforced concrete dome. And while this grand monument to all the Roman gods has since been coopted by the Catholic Church, we could not help but imagine the grandeur of Rome at her peak, as we stood at the centre of the Pantheon looking at the sky above through the perfectly round oculus.
Our final day in Rome was spent at the Vatican. We had a grand day planned for the day too, which included a visit to St. Peter’s Basilica and the top of its dome, the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel; we had even timed it perfectly to arrive at St. Paul’s for 8AM right when the doors opened. But, alas, it was all for not, as it was a Wednesday, which meant, unbeknownst to us and not obvious on the Vatican website, it was a Pope-chat day and everything was closed until 1PM, after the Pope held audience in the square that morning. So we settled in amongst the masses to await the Pope’s arrival; and oh did he ever arrive in style.
The Pope burst into the square atop his Pope-cart, with the masses in St. Peter’s square erupting into cheers and applause. The Pope was like a rock star, he toured through the crowd as babies and children were thrust up at him to kiss and touch, and countless more hands reached out towards him; and from the back of the square we watched the crowds ebb and flow as they followed the Pope-cart around the preordained route through the square. It was an interesting sight to behold. After the 25-minute cruise through the square was over, the Pope dismounted the cart and took his big seat at the centre of a temporary stage on the steps of St. Peter’s to begin his talk.
After the Pope gave his final blessings and receded to his chambers deep within the Vatican walls, the queue to enter St. Peter’s started to build, and after a little less than an hour, we were finally allowed to enter the heart of Christendom. Needless to say, from a pure architectural and scale perspective, St. Peter’s is a wonder: It is huge, cavernous and imposing. The craftsmanship and artistry that went into all its elements from the seven-foot tall gold lettering in the pediment above the columns, the stratosphere-scrapping height of the dome itself, and the towering marble columns to the intricate details found in all of the carvings was most impressive.
We topped off our stay in Rome with a great dinner with our hosts Maribel and Carlos, at a classic, and delicious, little Italian Pizzeria, complete with checkerboard tablecloths. The tasty pizzas and pasta, and lots of wine followed by too much limoncello was an excellent way to close out our time in Rome. Thanks for the hospitality Maribel and Carlos.
Next stop, England!