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Michael’s Travel Diary

Friday, 03 Jul 2009

Location: Rome, Italy

MapOn Tuesday, Charlotte and I headed into London for the evening after work and got ready for our trip to Italy! Wednesday morning we were up at the crack of dawn and headed to Standstead on the long haul; first by underground to Baker Street, then the EasyBus, which was a 2hr torture fest in a refrigerator with no leg room.

We arrived in Rome at midday and started the holiday with a beer at the airport whilst waiting for our bus to take us to the centre of Rome from Ciampino Airport – which also meant that we missed our bus. Another ticket for a different bus line and we were soon enough on the road. Quickly we were introduced to the clean and efficient (if not that extensive) Rome Metro, and headed towards the west side of the city not far from the Vatican to check into our accommodation for our time in Rome. We arrived there at about 2pm, checking into the Gli Artisti B&B. Whilst the breakfasts weren’t much to shout about, the bed side was brilliant. The bedroom was air-conditioned to a fantastic temperature, something that was clearly going to be needed with the temperatures in Rome in the summer being particularly nasty, and the bathroom was massive and modern. And Chiara & Allessandro were lovely hosts as well.

After we checked in Charlie and I headed towards Villa Borghese, a massive park in the north east section of the city. We only made it to Piazza Del Popolo, near the gates to the park where we had our first taste (of many) of wonderful Italian gelato. Whilst at the Piazza Del Popolo, we could see the cool change coming in, and as we wandered south toward the Piazza Di Spagna and the Spanish Steps, we found ourselves scurrying for cover when the heavens opened. I honestly can’t remember the last time I had been caught out in a summer storm, something that just doesn’t happen in England. It was a weather pattern that would be repeated at 5pm, the same time, on the following day as well.

Arriving at the Spanish Steps (noting that the only thing Spanish about them is the fact they lead down to the Spanish Embassy) after the rain had cleared, the entire place glistened in the last of the afternoon light. With the staircase smoothed from centuries of foot traffic, and covered in rain water, the trek to the top had became incredibly slippery. Still, we made our way to the top and visited the church of Trinita Dei Monti, which offered wonderful views over the city back towards the Vatican from the top steps of the balcony.

From the Spanish Steps, we made our way further south down towards the Trevi Fountain. After ambling through a series of back streets, the low murmur of noise slowly built, first the continuous hypnotic sound of running water, and then the hum of people in conversation, an assault to the ears with more languages being spoken than there are days in the week. Clearly, the Trevi Fountain is one of the most visited sites in Rome, and by virtue of the fact, one of the most visited sites in the world. There were camera toting Japanese tourists, clicking in a trigger finger frenzy, and overweight and out of breath American tourists, sweating profusely in the humid aftermath of the summer shower. There were also snobbish looking French tourists, wondering why they didn’t have such a beautiful fountain in their country, and of course a diverse mix of locals, either selling their wares, or just taking a rest as they pass through, enjoying the buzz that the place generates. The Trevi Fountain is, safe to say, something that has to be felt, to be understood. The pictures just don’t do it justice. For good measure, Charlie and I joined the throngs of tourists throwing a coin over their shoulder and into the fountain, thereby guaranteeing that we will one day return to Rome. Don’t ask me where that one came from; I think it is just a scam to get people to throw in money towards the maintenance of the massive patron-less swimming pool.

From Trevi Fountain we wandered through Piazza Colonna, with the Column of Marcus Aurelius erected between 180-190AD as its centre piece to commemorate his military victories, and Piazza Montecitorio, home of the Italian parliament since 1871. From there it was a quick stroll down to Piazza Della Rotonda and the Pantheon. The Pantheon dominates this Piazza, which hasn’t escaped modern times, now with a McDonald’s restaurant facing directly out to the front of the ancient building. It was originally a temple, the most complete ancient Roman structure in the city, dating back to the BC era. It was entirely rebuilt around 125AD by Emperor Hadrian, with its 43m height exactly equal to the diameter. The dome has a 9m diameter in the top to allow sunlight in, and most impressively, there are no visible arches or vaults to hold the dome up, all the supporting structure being sunk into the walls of the building. Unfortunately, by the time we had arrived, the Pantheon had shut for the day (0830-1930).

Continuing our wander, we arrived at Piazza Navona, the most lively & famous of the squares in Rome. Packed with restaurants and cafes and of course the throngs of tourists, this is the place that the typical tourist traps occur – people selling cheap souvenirs, caricatures, mimes & statues, and of course straight up beggars. The architecture in the square, from the churches to the fountains, was primarily the work of arch-rivals Borromini and Bernini.

Heading through the windy streets that lead away from the Piazza Navona towards the River Tevere, we made our way to the Ponte St. Angelo, the bridge the crosses the river and leads to Castel St Angelo. A late dinner and then we found ourselves walking back towards our hotel via Vatican City, all lit up at night time. The walk along the main road leading to the Vatican, Via Della Conciliazione was amazing, with St. Peter’s Bascilica growing ever more dominating as we got closer. Instead of heading into the Piazza San Pietro, we headed right, underneath the aqueduct that stretches from The Vatican to Castel St Angelo and called it a night – pretty happy with how much we’d managed to see in half a day!

Yesterday morning we started early, having cereal & toast for breakfast at the hotel before pushing off for the Colosseum and the rest of Ancient Rome. We decided to make an early start and try and beat the crowds, grabbing the subway to get there. It was incredibly surprising surfacing after the train ride to see the most recognised structure of the Roman Empire sitting there staring down at all the tourists shading their eyes from the sudden blinding of the Sun. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if half of them didn’t see it at first.

We crossed the road and headed around the Colosseum, passing the street performers dressed as Gladiators, plastic six-packs and all, and joined the queue to get in. Thankfully, getting there when we did, the queue wasn’t too bad. Once inside, it didn’t take long to be in awe of just how big the place must have been, and what the atmosphere must have been like with the stadium full of blood lusting spectators. Having stood there for almost 2000 years, the structure is relatively intact, despite, earthquakes, fires, plundering of the structure for it’s stone, and more recently, the degradation caused by modern day pollution.

We grabbed the audio guides and did the tour, but spent more time staring up in awe, and wandering aimlessly than following the guide itself. Begun in 72AD, there is much debate amongst how many people the stadium held, but a number around 60,000 seated and 10,000 standing is commonly used, a number that despite 2000 years of advancement would still make many stadiums today look small. And it is safe to say, looking around the Colosseum from inside, this was the model for many modern day stadiums.

From the south west side of the stadium, we could see The Arch of Constantine, built early in 4th century AD. It is looked upon as an example of the fall of the arts within the Roman Empire, with most of the sculptural decorations simply being taken from other temples and structures, rather than created anew.

After leaving the Colosseum we made our way to Palatino (The Palatine Hill), purportedly where Rome was founded and home to some of the most ancient ruins. The ruins up on the hill are generally in a much further state of degradation than those in the Roman Forum, with only the base of the structures visible. That is, aside from The Circus which is still in relatively good knick. But the highlight from Palatine Hill is without a doubt the views that are afforded over The Roman Forum, the next stop on our meanderings.

The Roman Forums were once the heart of the Mediterranean world, but now resembles little more than a semi-ordered pile of rubble. Admittedly, there are a number of Corinthian columns and the like that have been re-assembled, and a number of archways that are still standing. But on the whole, it does take a whole lot of imagination to picture what was once the location of temples and processions through the city.

Following our walk through the Forum, we headed around the corner to the Piazza Venezia, and found ourselves face to face with The Vittorio Emanuele Monument – The Vittoriano. The massive building was erected at the start of the 20th century to commemorate the Italian Unification and sits at the end of wide roadway Corso Vittorio Emanuele II. The massive tiered stairway to the top of the building had a massive equestrian statue on one landing, and the next level contained he tomb of the Unknown Soldier. After a long morning of wandering around the city, we headed back to the hotel grabbing some pizza by the gram and eating it on the river.

Later in the evening we decided to head out for a bit of a proper sit down Italian meal down in the hip and up coming area known as Trastevere; Pricey, but tasty. We had a couple glasses of red, and then a meal made from local fresh produce. After dinner we headed out for a few more drinks, finding a rammed local bar in the area and having a couple beers. Later we wandered back to the river and enjoyed the sights and sounds of the arts festival they had set up on Tiberina Island. They had bands playing and dance acts, make-shift bars, food stalls, and a couple of open air cinemas set up as well. And given it was still high 20’s at 11 pm, there wasn’t much better to be doing at that time of night than wandering around the quiet festival.