On one hand, the capital city of Italy is breathtaking with all its epic history and glorious monuments serving as reminders of this once juggernaut empire. Just standing still, looking around and witnessing what is said to be the remnants of human activity from thousands of years ago is a shock to the system and quite simply astounding. There’s plenty of what most Italian cities seem to have too – a lingering old charm. On the other, Rome could potentially be seen as one of those places where you go to tick off boxes. Colosseum? Check. Trevi Fountain? Check. Pantheon? Check. And the list goes on. Geographically, it is sprawling and public transportation isn’t necessarily ideal (poor?). I visited just as summer kicked in; so walking around with a bag pack, with (what must be because it certainly feels like it) 5 kg of a camera around my neck, and seemingly spending every second drenched in sweat, was clearly not one of the most luxurious condition to find myself in. All in all, I would struggle to name it my favourite Italian destination. Of course, Rome had its moments for me too and a few of them are pretty firmly entrenched memories I assure you!
There is only one gelato shop you should get it from – trying any of the rest is a waste of your money and a disservice to your taste buds (but if you know of any others do leave me a comment!). The best gelato I’ve ever had in my life I found at Il Gelato di San Crispino. Here I saw for the first time proper Italian ice cream served in cylindrical metal canisters, instead of being greeted by 10,000 vividly coloured gelato as soon as I walked into a store. The flavours were so intriguing too! Needless to say, I was a loyal patron of the store for all three days of my time in the city. The lemon gelato was just the right balance of tang and sweetness. Mint was, for once, not green but white with flecks of mint leaves – and no pesky chocolate chips! Pistachio tasted of clean, fresh nuts. Melon was naturally fragrant and so thirst quenching on those sun soaked, toasty days. The most interesting flavour of all, was basil. I could never imagine a herb as a dessert but this “worked”. I don’t even have words to describe it. Try if for yourself. The store I went to was located near the Pantheon but I think there are a few outlets. (If you’re in Melbourne and would like a good gelato fix that comes close, try Pidapipo).
This was my favourite historical monument of the bunch. Granted, it was indoors (i.e. away from the heat). The facade of the Pantheon is unassuming. The Corinthian columns at the entrance appear to be rather typical. The dome seems rather subdued, with external walls of the entire structure being a dusty, rusty colour. Not particularly outstanding but for the fact that it is the Pantheon, I would say. Step inside and my curiousity increased tenfold. It’s not by any means an attack on all senses (I’m comparing this to the other domes of the world which seem to have all corners furnished with intricate, elaborate paintings and gold). Still, the inside of the Pantheon was pretty remarkable to me. I stood enchanted in a circular space, following the stream of sunlight from the ground all the way up to the opening at the roof of the dome. The architecture is absolutely fascinating. I couldn’t imagine how they’d achieved such a feat. I spent my time at the Pantheon with an audio guide (which I would highly recommend), which lasted for about 45 minutes. It was a peaceful, mystical time to sit in peace and admire architecture from a time so distant it feels like a legend.
The Colosseum is ubiquitous. I think for many, this might be the “iconic” visit when in Rome. It’s easy to take a photo with it and say “I’ve been to Rome!”. But I think if you did that you would basically have a photo taken of yourself with some ruins in the background, which given time might mean precisely just that to you. My take on the Colosseum was once again listening to the audio guide and really getting immersed in a different time and place. For me, this is another architectural wonder of the ancient world that emanates both brutality and magnificence at the same time.
(Is it cheating if I said) Vatican City
Don’t leave Rome without spending at least half a day in the smallest country in the world! Anyone who’s watched a papal conclave on TV would recognise this pretty quickly. The walk into the Vatican felt in some ways like a procession. There was clearly anticipation, and this was my first stop when I was in Rome. From experience, I learned that there are two essentials. Firstly, allocate enough time to get to the Sistine Chapel (don’t for a minute contemplate denying yourself the privilege to admire Michaelangelo’s paintings on the ceiling). I didn’t expect that the time of last entry into the Chapel would be a good 30 minutes before the closing time of the museum and found myself literally racing to the Chapel. Note that the only way to get there is to enter via the Vatican Museum and trawl through what seemed to me to be miles and miles of exhibit. You will encounter numerous overly optimistic signposts which appear to suggest that the Chapel is just ahead; I suggest to march on until you are actually there. If you must stroll leisurely, be warned (and please remember to factor in time spent waiting in the queue)! Secondly, visit St. Peter’s Basilica including scaling the dome. I’m acrophobic but trust me – there’s no better way to overcome a fear than to face it head on. You could choose to take an elevator half way and climb the stairs (320 steps they say) or brave the full hike at 551 steps. I picked the latter and when I emerged victorious having conquered my fear (somewhat) and a fitness test, I witnessed an amazing sight (see picture). The only thing I regret not doing, which in hindsight I should have, was send myself a postcard from the Vatican. Oh, and if you have any say at all of the day to visit the Vatican City, make it a Sunday because you might just catch the Pope in action. It’s quite an experience – watching a sea of tourists hush in unison, and then swiftly raising their phone or camera in the most synchronised manner. Obviously I followed suit.
I admired Trevi Fountain for what it was. It’s grand. It’s opulent. It’s famous. Unfortunately I didn’t know enough about it when I was in Rome and so failed to appreciate with any deeper meaning. I’ve read up on it now and long to revisit. I also think that the Trevi Fountain is one which avid photographers like myself would find thrill in capturing as an image by day and by night. Another reason to be back, I guess, even though I chose to stinge on my spare Euro change instead of tossing it into the water like so many others readily did.
A few other (random) things on Rome
1. Avoid taking the Metro at peak hour if you can. I ended up being pushed into a different carriage from my friends. I was squished up against the glass window and could barely get a grip of anything because everything was slippery with sweat. I have no recollection of how I got out.
2. Buy Italian-made leather shoes! I’m sure they’re everywhere, but I found some pretty good shoemakers in the vicinity of the Spanish Steps (try walking along Via dei Condotti). €90-120 for a good pair. While you’re at it, why not spend some time around the Spanish Steps themselves?
3. Don’t worry about searching for a gourmet experience in Rome (I am, however, happy to be proven completely wrong in this). My friends and I ordered spaghetti carbonara everywhere we went. Some were good, some were pretty much eggs scrambled in cream with bits of bacon. I remember trying for the first time “Prosciutto and Rock Melon” and absolutely loving it. Foodie to foodie, I’d say save it for the trip up north to Florence.