I had never been to Italy. Despite a lifelong interest in all things Roman, as well as a passing regard for Marco Polo, Garibaldi’s Redshirts, and a fascination with the nefarious exploits of Brigate Rosse during the 1970’s, I had never set foot on the land that also produced the wines I loved so much; Barolo, Barbera D’Asti, and Chianti.
Julie was well aware of my love of Roman History, and my somewhat morbid obsession with the arenas, and the gladiatorial combats fought within them. With my fiftieth birthday coming up, in March 2002, she arranged a ‘short break’ holiday to Rome, as her gift to me. It remains one of the best gifts that I have ever received, and this is the tale of our trip to the Eternal City.
Even the chosen hotel was to be a delight. The Art Deco Hotel, close to the Central Station, so also close to many of the best sights to be seen. Small and friendly, liberally scattered with Art Deco features, both old and new, with a buffet breakfast, served in the bar. We needed no more, as the short trip was all about getting out, and seeing the place, not relaxing in the hotel. The weather was delightful, considering the time of year. Warm and sunny, with pleasant evenings for strolling too. We had a good guide book, and had done some research before leaving England. Having been fortunate enough to have visited many places before this, I was prepared for the possibility that it would not be all that I had so eagerly anticipated. I was more than pleasantly surprised, when it turned out to be in excess of all expectations, and became one of the best places I had ever seen, and one of the highlights of my life, up to that point.
The first destination had to be The Colosseum. I had seen representations of it in so many films, as well as the real thing on travel shows, and films like ‘Roman Holiday’. I had read so many books about it, I felt I already knew the place inside out, and I couldn’t wait to actually stand inside it. Walking there from the hotel, I could feel my pace quickening as we got nearer, finally reaching a spot where we could see it from an elevated position, across the road. The feeling that swept over me was one of awe. In an age where the word ‘awesome’ has become almost meaningless, this place took me back to the real meaning of the word. How it must have looked to a simple Roman, when it could still take my breath away, over 1900 years since it opened. Once inside, I was like a delighted child, almost scampering over and around the parts still accessible to visitors. I took countless photos, and could barely contain myself. Simply one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. I could have spent all four days there. Even typing this now, I can recall that feeling, of seeing something so much a part of history, so well-known, yet still mysterious. I could imagine those toiling in the warren of tunnels and rooms beneath the floor, preparing animals for combat, or dragging the dead from the sand. This was a culture and a time almost incomprehensible to us, yet it laid the foundations of modern Europe.
Until I was actually standing there, I had been unaware how close the Forum was to the Colosseum. The whole area we know so well from films and books, is actually all interwoven, and leads off of a long avenue, that must have appeared truly magnificent, in the heyday of the empire. It is hard to make progress, constantly turning to gaze, and marvel at, the remains of buildings and statues once passed by Trajan, Caligula, Nero, and all those other historical figures. I could hardly take it all in, this veritable feast for the eyes. Not far off, the remains of the Emperor’s Palace, and the grassy outline of the once magnificent Circus Maximus. What a morning, a time to treasure, and to look back on always. Almost by accident, we discovered Trajan’s Column, as we stopped for a coffee, during an unexpected shower. This has been restored, and the carved reliefs, celebrating the victories in Dacia (Romania), are a sight to see; so clear, and easy to interpret.
The next day, we decided to get a tour bus, one that stopped off and picked up, so we could choose to go a little further afield, and have a look at The Vatican, on the other side of the River Tiber. On the way to the bus,we noticed a small cemetery, behind some vendors’ stands. Inside and outside this unprepossessing building, were the gravestones of soldiers and gladiators, some dating from dates B.C. They were lined up along the walls, some with translations of the inscriptions. This small diversion was in some ways, one of the most impressive parts of the whole trip, and I found this small area incredibly moving. The bus took us off to St Peter’s Basilica, and the Sistine Chapel, both sites we considered essential to visit, during the short stay. I was unprepared for the sheer size of St Peter’s. It is simply enormous. I had expected something like St Paul’s, in London, but I believe that you could fit that cathedral inside the one in Rome, with plenty of room to spare. This high temple of Catholicism is so much larger than it seems on TV, or in pictures, little wonder it staggered the 16th century mind. Inside, the wonders continue, including statues as big as houses, carved from marble, and the overall effect of the place is to leave you slack-jawed and speechless. I actually became quite uncomfortable, at the contrast with this display of wealth and majesty, against the poverty in so many places where Catholicism is the main religion and power.
We later joined a long queue to enter the Sistine Chapel, part of the official residence of The Pope, The Apostolic Palace. This long line snaked a circuitous route around the building, passing many beggars, mostly elderly women, who lay in the street, as hundreds of clergymen and nuns passed by, oblivious to their presence. The crowds inside the chapel are significant, and it is not a place for anyone suffering from claustrophobia. The paintings on the ceiling are, once again, so much more powerful that you could ever imagine, from seeing them anywhere else. The sheer scale, and the vibrant colours, it is almost too much splendour. You also have to keep moving, so there is no time to linger on any particular feature. Despite the short time allowed, and the uncomfortable crush that has to be endured, I am very glad to have seen this. We later took in the Spanish Steps, eating in a marvellous restaurant near there that same evening. I threw coins into the Trvei Fountain, and managed to get a photo of Julie doing the same, with all three coins still in the air.
Rome is a place that has almost too much to see. The imposing Castel Sant Angelo, and the modern monument to King Victoria Emmanuel ll, The Arch of Constantine, The Pantheon, in Greek style, and the incredible Santa Maria Maggiore, the list just goes on and on. Outside of the tourist trail, we did not really encounter much of Italian life, as time was too short. We did eat some marvellous meals, in some of the most atmospheric restaurants I have ever visited. My fiftieth birthday was celebrated in the elegant Grappollo D’oro restaurant, near our hotel, and it was excellent. Julie almost destroyed her poor feet, as walking in the heat gave her terrible blisters, but she never complained. There was a lot we never got to see, as time and distance made it impossible. The famous catacombs, much of the other side of the river, the artistic district, and many other sights outside the limits of the city, all had to be neglected. In the short time available, we had a marvellous trip, and almost twelve years later, it feels as if I was there yesterday.
I don’t know if I will ever go back, but I doubt it. I do urge you to see it though, if you have never been. I cannot imagine anyone being disappointed, by this most magnificent of cities.