I have a confession: this blog post was one of the most difficult to write. It started life as a huge endless stream of rambling because there is just so much to talk about! With great difficulty, I have chopped and trimmed ruthlessly to give you some highlights from our jam packed three trip. Even so, there was still too much! So it’s going to be split over a few posts, like a trilogy movie franchise (where the final movie is split into two parts).
The first order of business: the incredible landmarks and historical structures on display! Instead of having precious ancient ruins and archaeological sites cordoned off, the Italians simply continued on living around them; putting busy roads, and squeezing new buildings from all centuries into any available space. Contemporary Rome is a bustling and charismatic beast rising between the crumbling ruins of a civilisation that once ruled so much of the world. Everywhere we saw “S.P.Q.R.” which stands for “Senatus Populusque Romanus”, referring to the people and government of Rome. Having been around since ancient times, it’s likely the oldest acronym in Europe!
We spent a hot and sweaty three days in temperatures above 30 degrees that made us endlessly grateful for the abundance of water fountains in the city providing safe drinking water for free. The first few hours were spent strolling through the city. Near our hotel is the Piazza Della Repubblica with a fountain at its centre. The Piazza was dramatic and reflected what we would see all weekend; iconic Roman architecture, cathedrals, fountains and sculptures. The fountain includes four nymphs, one each for the lakes, rivers, oceans and underground waters. In front of the fountain is also the Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, a relatively new church by Roman standards, having been completed around the mid 1500’s.
Walking up Via Vittoria Emanuele Orlando, it soon became clear just how much beauty there was to see in Rome. At every turn is yet another historic building or ancient structure; each one with a story to tell. Piazza del Quirinale is surrounded by state buildings including the President’s home. At its centre is an obelisk made in Egypt and brought to Rome in the 1st century AD, and a small fountain (because you have to put a fountain in a Piazza when you’re in Rome!). Due to the devastating earthquakes that hit central Italy only 3 days before our visit, all the flags were flying at half mast.
The astoundingly beautiful Trevi Fountain is possibly the most famous fountain in the world and it draws an impressive crowd all day, every day. We’ve never been to any city so rich in tales that blend history with myth so that one is almost indistinguishable from the other. According to legend, in 19BC a group of thirsty Roman soldiers were guided by a young girl to a source of clean water. The discovery of this water source led Augustus to commission an aqueduct leading 22km from the source into the city. It was named Aqua Virgo in honour of the young girl, and it served Rome for over 400 years. The Trevi Fountain marks the end of the aqueduct and is where local Romans once came to receive clean water. The fountain is meticulously maintained with crystal clear waters. The coins thrown in by all the visitors are collected and distributed to local charities, and in particular while we were there, the earthquake relief efforts. It’s probably one of the most beautiful attractions we have ever seen. If the fountain had a personality, I imagine it would be proud and elegant but inviting. Despite all the people around, you can find a little slice of relaxation listening to the gushing water and observing the sculptures.
At Piazza Colonna stands the Colonna di Marco Aurelio. There are a few of these columns standing in squares! This marble column reaches up about 36 meters which seems incredible for a 2nd century AD creation. Intricate carvings spiral up, depicting the victories of Marcus Aurelius. While some details were faded and worn, much of it remained, showing marvelous skill.
We approached the river Tiber as the sun began to descend and crossed Ponte Umberto I, directly in front of impressive law courts. Wandering under the shade of trees beside the river, we came to Castel Sant’Angelo. On a map you can see the aesthetically pleasing star-shape of the grounds behind this 2nd century circular castle. It was initially commissioned by Emperor Hadrian to act as a mausoleum for himself and his family. It is kind of squat and fortress-like to my eyes. But directly in front of the entrance to Castel Sant’Angelo is a beautiful bridge built in 134AD called Ponte Sant’Angelo. The romance level is at its maximum here with statues of 10 angels lining both sides. The angels that now grace the bridge are replicas of the originals that are preserved in a museum.
As the sun finally set, we went to Altare della Patria (Altar of the Fatherland). Despite its ancient Roman appearance, this monument was designed in 1885 and completed in 1925. I’ve read, and we were also told, that locals are not fond of this giant gleaming white monstrosity that commemorates the first king of unified Italy, Victor Emmanuel. We didn’t go to either of the museums housed within, instead we walked up around the exterior to view the city at night. Quite by surprise we found ourselves looking down at the Roman Forum lit by spot lights and looking phenomenal. It was at this point in our day that I finally began to realise where I was and the simple remarkable fact that I now stood looking down at impossibly old remnants of ancient civilisation. To walk through those streets, past buildings, monuments and ruins, even touch them and only imagine what they’ve seen – it’s mind boggling. I imagined everyone around me having this silent life altering realisation while standing quietly on the streets of Rome.
Day two was completely exhausting with two walking tours over six hours. We began at the Colosseum, previously know as the Flavian Amphitheatre (after the Flavian dynasty). It’s hard to say what is most incredible about this structure. I was astounded to learn it only took 8 years to build, from 72AD to 80AD. It’s amazing given it’s size; 4 levels, 189 metres long, 156 metres wide, with a base area of 24,000 square metres. Today, visitors all squeeze in through one entrance, but there are in fact 80 numbered arches that served as entrances and exits. Spectacles held in the Colosseum included animal fighting, public executions (over lunch apparently!), and gladiator tournaments. It was free for all Romans to attend spectacles at the Colosseum but they did require tickets. These tickets detailed which door they should enter in and where they sat, ensuring efficient entry and segregation of classes (and genders!). It is alleged that the layout and number of exits allowed for a full evacuation of the Colosseum in 5 minutes! Talk about a record fire drill. For the most influential and wealthy men, communal toilets and water fountains were also provided. To think, they had plumbing! I think even people who know very little about Rome or ancient history will be familiar with images of the Colosseum. It’s just like all those pictures and yet also so much more! It’s impossible not to be in awe of its mere existence as your approach and stand in its shadow.
The Roman Forum was the bustling heart of ancient Rome, and dates back 2000 years. The largest building there is the Basilica of Maxentius that once housed an enormous statue of Emperor Constantine. The statue was called Colossus and is what gave the Colosseum its modern name. Also in the Forum is the Casa delle Vestali or House of the Vestals. Here lived the famed Vestal Virgins during their 30 years service to Vesta, goddess of the hearth. They cultivated a sacred fire in the temple that was not allowed to go out. Holding a highly esteemed position in society, the Vestal Virgins were allowed to sit in prime seats at the Colosseum (the only women allowed at that level) and often came from very wealthy families where it is an honour to have a Vestal Virgin in the family. While it was most likely a pleasant place to live and a life well-provided for, 30 years seems like an awfully long time to commit to something when you’re as young as 7 years old!
Archeological evidence and legend corroborate that the Palatine hill is where Rome began. People have lived in the area since the 10th century BC. What remains now are ruins of palaces belonging to Emperors Augustus (27 BC – 14 AD), Tiberius (14 – 37 AD) and Domitian (81 – 96 AD). Our guide had a great book she called her ‘magic book’ that illustrated what experts believe these Palaces were once like. It’s alway been location, location, location with homes. From the top of the hill you get sweeping views of the city below. The grounds looked over the grand Circus Maximus for chariot races and games, and what once must have been a beautiful private garden. Even today, it would make a great palace.
In the time between tours we had lunch and a brief rest for our feet. Our next tour began by the famous Spanish Steps. Due to restoration work, we couldn’t be on the steps but it was actually fine because we could admire them without any people in the way. The steps open onto a ‘square’, Piazza di Spagna, that was actually shaped like a bow tie or geometric butterfly. At its centre is the Barcaccia Fountain where people crowded like animals around the watering hole in the blistering heat of the Savannah. Our tour took us on a stroll through crowded streets where we came across endless monuments, squares and ancient buildings including the Column of the Immaculate Conception, a charming Pinocchio shop, the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Fontana del Pantheon, and the Fiumi Fountain.
I’m so glad we saw the Pantheon; an architectural and engineering marvel sitting amongst gelato shops and restaurants. At the peak of its domed ceiling is a circular hole allowing a stream of light in to illuminate the gorgeous interior decorations. When it rains, the water falls directly onto the floor, but no flooding need occur! The floor is tilted to the centre where drainage holes take away any excess water. It’s all neatly taken care of and so thoughtfully built.
After such an exhausting day we definitely felt a sense of satisfaction at what we’d covered in such a short time. The legacy of Rome is overwhelmingly enormous and it’s hard to describe how incredible it was to be amongst it all. I haven’t even got around to telling you about the food we ate yet! Look out for a post on that coming your way soon along with an account of our day in Vatican City.