Rome wasn’t built in a day – and cannot possibly be fully appreciated in all its magnificence in four days.
But, on our first ever visit to Rome (or Italy), we gave it our best shot – and pledged we’ll return.
Spectacular, breathtaking Rome is essentially all about beautiful architecture and art, and a history that spans over 2,000 years and which encompasses the Roman Empire, Medieval Rome, Renaissance Rome and more besides. Not to mention its role as the centre of Christianity.
So, four days then!
The weekend highlights were the few hours we spent at The Vatican and later, a tour of the Colosseum. We also visited the Roman Forum, the Spanish Steps, the Piazza del Popola, Piazza Navona, Piazzo Venezia, Circus Maximus the Pantheon, and the Trevi Fountain. Some of these attractions I hadn’t heard of until last weekend; all are well worth seeing.
Meanwhile, we also enjoyed the buzz of the city. Apparently the Italian economy is on its knees, but my anecdotal report is that Rome was impressively buoyant and brimming with tourists…not bad for January? Of course that’s the least informed ‘economic report’ you’ve ever read (though at least mercifully short). And presumably tourists milling around Rome is a 12-month phenomenon.
As in so many holiday destinations, you can barely pass a restaurant without being lobbied by an enthusiastic waiter or waitress. In Rome, fuelled by Latin charm and good humour, the waiters whizz in and out between tables, while keeping an eye on any slow-moving pedestrians/potential new customers!
The Vatican (Saturday)
It would be dishonest to suggest that our arrival at The Vatican was a grand one; Fiona and I disembarked from a ‘Hop on, Hop off’ bus. Large crowds of tourists milled around, a selfies’ extravaganza. There, in the distance, was the famous, familiar dome. The walk deep into the heart of Vatican City took about ten minutes. It’s a curious approach, with homeless people lying or standing in doorways, as in any other European city. One such man had a coat draped over his dog. He had a fabulous looking iphone. Movingly, or maybe opportunistically, one ‘rough sleeper’ prostrated himself on the footpath outside the entrance to The Vatican, his hands clasped in prayer, head bowed, his face invisible to the passing crowds. A small box beside him contained few coins.
A McDonald’s sign ahead of us is a reminder of a different place of worship and of how commercialism knows no boundaries. Why should I be surprised? Needless to say, the walk to The Vatican reveals numerous souvenir shops too. As we queue to enter St. Peter’s Basilica, the rain comes. Hawkers emerge from the shadows offering raincoats and umbrellas. A burly, hollering security man chases one of them and the hawker breaks away in haste before returning the moment the coast is clear.
Visiting St. Peter’s Basilica is a remarkable and moving experience. This is where St. Peter was martyred and where the Apostles were buried. Inside the Basilica lie the remains of a number of Popes. Given his charisma, his famous Irish visit in 1979 and his stature throughout our youth, it is quite an experience to spend some time at the tomb of Pope Paul 11.
What is so compelling is the magnificence of the building. It’s the world’s largest Church, and the architecture is amazing. Works by Michaelangelo and other great artists are on display. Every turn you take in this vast, spectacular building amazes you further.
The packed souvenir shop is staffed by five nuns.
The Colosseum (Sunday)
It was impossible to stand inside the Colosseum and not let your mind wander back to the period numerous centuries ago when it was the scene of regular ‘sporting events’ in which gladiators and wild animals fought to the death for the entertainment of 75,000 spectators.
We had a wonderful tour guide, a charismatic big Italian man with a tremendous knowledge of Roman history. One of the many fascinating facts we heard on our tour is that it took just eight years to build the arena (beginning in 72 AD). It helped that 60,000 slaves were on the job.
You get to wander around the vast amphitheatre, and imagine what it must have been like. To your left is the seat on which the Emperor of the day sat. Across from him, were seated the elite of Roman society. Above them (further from the brutal ‘action’) thousands of much less important Romans. Above them still (it’s a four-storey building) were convicts, the poor. Women were forced to take the top tier, where they stood (everyone else had access to seating).
In the Colosseum, the ‘sport’ lasted all day. Wild animals fought to the death on a stage in the centre. In what was effectively ‘half-time entertainment’, deserters from the army were fed to the lions…eaten alive in front of the baying mob.
The highlight was always an epic showdown involving gladiators and wild animals. These were elaborate stage-managed ‘productions’. As a team of gladiators fought against a rival team, packs of wild animals were introduced to the fray at 20-minute intervals, to add to the tension. Gladiators and animals, blood and death, audience clamouring for more. By the time it was all over, the spectators were going crazy. Many of them would soon join up as soldiers. They had no choice: a night in the Colosseum had whetted their appetite for some invading of foreign lands; it had heightened their loyalty to the Emperor, to Rome. Besides, if you deserted, there was the prospect of being fed to the lions in front of 75,000 people some night soon…
On Sunday, the Colosseum was thronged with tourists. There were a few Irish voices, but I was probably the only one wondering how the FBD Final was going.
Sunday evening/Monday morning
We visited a couple of superb museums, before (well, it was our last night) moving the cultural dial just a little by visiting an Irish pub (at least it’s called ‘Scholars’). The place was packed with students and holiday-makers, an exciting American football showdown on large screens creating a great atmosphere.
I had of course checked the FBD result on my phone, and on the flight home, the Irish Independent had all the details on the clash of the gladiators in Tuam. And the Roscommon gladiators had triumphed.
In the shuttle bus, I knew I was home when I heard a man on his mobile: “100%, 100%, leave that with me man and I’ll have it sorted before you know it”.
Rome was magnificent, as we expected it would be. Now to read up on some of that extraordinary Roman history…