A Winter Trip to Rome

In February I spent 5 days in the “Eternal City” walking around and gazing at objects I had only read about or seen pictures of. When my mother suggested a trip to Rome, I jumped at the chance. When I was in school and university, I studies Renaissance art and wrote papers about Michelangelo and his contemporaries. This was a chance to actually see some of Michelangelo’s most famous work. And I would be seeing the famous ancient Roman ruins!
We took the high-speed train to Rome and while our Frecciarossa whizzed through the countryside, I reread my guide books trying to decide what we needed to see first. Our first evening was spent getting to know the area around our hotel which was conveniently near the Spanish Steps.

The next day the sun was out and we were off to explore the city. We stood in line to buy our ticket which would let us visit the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. While we waited, I rushed in and out of the line taking pictures and then reading the guide book again.

We decided to visit the Colosseum first, and I was amazed at the size. I’ve seen the amphitheaters in Verona and Nîmes, but this was special since I could actually see the mazes below the stage and up to the highest rows. It still amazes me that some 80’000 people could enter and be seated within 10 minutes.

From there we walked across the street to the Palantine Hill. All those Roman ruins and I was forced to try and imagine how large everything once had been. I was amazed at how many pieces of columns were just lying around.

From the Palantine Hill the view over the Roman Forum is magnificent (see first photo). Walking down through the streets and past temples, the sheer height of the columns made me feel small and unimportant. It was interesting to see the churches which had been built into the temples.

After lunch in a small café where we were watched over by three dogs, it was time to see Michelangelo’s Moses. This was one of the statues I vividly remember giving a very detailed talk about. And here I was, rushing into the church with 30 other tourists to see him. He was just as I pictured him, but I wished I could reach out and touch the polished stone.

Our last stop that day was the famous Trevi Fountain but with all the tourists standing in front of it, I decided we needed to return early the next morning. Which we did and we were almost the only people there. Probably because it was pouring rain. When we returned yet again two hours later, the tourists were back.

After lots of wonderful sun on our first day, we woke up to pouring rain the next morning. But we just opened our umbrellas and made our way to the Pantheon. As there is a huge hole in the roof it rained right in and that was a very interesting experience.

I enjoy visiting cities for their architecture and cultural events, but at heart I’m a country girl. So when I’m in cities, I inevitably search for quiet streets and corners where I can gather my thoughts.

Rome is actually a city filled with fountains and there are some spectacular statues in those fountains. The following were found at the Fontana di Fiumi on Piazza Navona.

We walked up to the Capitoline Hill, Rome’s most important hill. This hill has a long history and the present day square and surrounding buildings were designed by Michelangelo. From behind it there is a view I could never tire of.

Next to the Roman Forum, which can be visited, there are more ruins. Unfortunately, Mussolini decided to build a large street right through them and obviously destructed them. Currently the street is in a test phase as a designated pedestrian area, which I think is a wonderful idea. Between the Forum and Mussolini’s wide avenue is also the huge, white monument built for Victor Emanuel II, the first king of a united Italy since the 6th century.

It seems as if there are churches on every corner and we visited about 5 of them. The most notable being the Basilica San Clemente, one of the oldest churches in Rome assumed to be about 2000 years old, each church built and rebuilt on top of the last. The courtyard is a nice place to sit and relax. A young priest and his friend felt the same. We didn’t go down to the excavations of the past churches, but I wish we had. I guess there must still be something on the to-do list for next time!

After that long second day, we ended it from the vista point in the gardens surrounding the Villa Borghese, right above the Piazza del Popolo. The sun came out one last time before it set. As it was Valentine’s Day, there were people out selling roses, lovers enjoying a stroll and an Asian couple having wedding photos taken.

Long before traveling to Rome, I purchased tickets for the Vatican Museums for our third day. I think the Vatican and St. Paul’s Basilica must be on most people’s place to visit. This year is a jubilee year and the holy doors have been opened, so we entered through that door in those churches which have one. The Vatican marked the 30th country I’ve visited.

We arrived at 8 in the morning as our tickets for the museum were at 9 and we wanted to see the church before all the tourists came. It was worth it, but since mass is held until 9, it isn’t possible to see walk round freely. There are certain areas reserved only for mass. Right inside the door to the right is Michelangelo’s famous Pietà. I’m rarely surprised by the original size of things I’ve only seen pictures of, but this time I was. I thought it would be larger.

After stopping at the back of the church for a full view, I looked up and down and around. There was so much to see, I didn’t even know where to start. Beautiful paintings and statues were everywhere I looked, and the size of the building amazed me. It was bigger than I had imagined.

Even now when I look at the photos I see things I didn’t actually see while I was taking the photo. The elephant in the bottom left photo was taken because I saw it, but I never actually saw the clock in the bottom right photo.

We left the church and walked to the entrance of the museum where we picked up our audio guide and entered. We spent three hours in the museum, but there is easily enough to see for double that time. At some point, though, it becomes impossible to process all you see. There are numerous ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman artifacts, beautiful ceilings, maps, paintings, mosaics on the floor, and much more.

At the end is the Sistine Chapel. It’s easy to sit in the chapel for 20 minutes and not spot everything it boasts. Maybe because there were already too many people in it or because I had already seen so many other wonderful things? Michelangelo worked for 4 years on the ceiling frescos, but before he painted the ceilings, Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, Perugino and others painted the walls. The whole chapel is one big masterpiece painted by the masters themselves.

After the chapel there was one more special thing I looked forward to: the double helix staircase by Giuseppe Momo, which is rather new as it was built in 1932.

After the big Vatican event, we spent the rest of our time in Rome roaming through the streets and visiting two museums, the Palazzo Altemps and the Capitolini Museum. Both were extremely interesting.

We also visited two more impressive churches. The first was the Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore (the papal major basilica).

The second was Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri (a thermal bath during the Roman times and later a part of the remaining buildings was turned into a church by Michelangeo). The church is only a small part of what was once the baths. Now, imagine how huge it must have been! The church was kept very dark, only highlighting the altars.

We walked everywhere and only took the metro a few times. By the third day we realized how close everything was and enjoyed trying new streets every time. We only saw a fraction of what Rome offers, and I do have a list of things to see the next time I go.

Where to stay:
Hotel Victoria: A Swiss-run hotel on a quiet street near the Spanish Steps.

Pizzeria San Marco: this place was right next to our hotel and we liked the food so much we went twice! I had a white pizza both times and my mother had a red pizza and a pasta dish.

Ginger: I read about this place and thought it would be nice on our first evening. We enjoyed it and the way it was decorated.

Urbana 47: our first lunch in Rome and absolutely delicious. Grilled organic stracchino cheese with spicy jam and grilled greens for me and the Roman classic Cacio et Pepe for my mother. We could have eaten here every day!

Volpetti: One evening we just wanted some good cheese, bread and olives for dinner in the hotel. There was s small store near our hotel and this is where we bought those lovely things.

Palazzo Braschi: I’ve never had a bad meal at a museum café and this is where we enjoyed lunch after walking across the Piazza Navona.

Venchi: In seach of good chocolate and the best gianduja ice cream? This is where to stop.

SAID: chocolate made in Rome since 1923. The café is cute, the chocolate cakes a dream. Off the beaten track and worth it.

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