Since the hotel is located near the Termini train station we decided to just walk to the hotel. We arrived on track 28 which is located at the back end of the main station entrance, and followed the exit signs until we ended up in the street. The Termini station turned out to be huge and walking to our hotel took a bit of time…especially when the navigator gets his bearings wrong (yes, I was carrying the map). But instead of sweating outside of the Termini I would advise you to follow the Metro signs instead of the Exit signs when getting of the Leonard Express. This will take you towards the front of the Termini station and there is even a conveyer belt on a lower level. I normally don’t mind dragging my Samsonite along but in Rome it got a bit long and it was already quite warm.
How to get
Rome also has a Metro system (here is a subway map) but we didn’t really take it that much since it didn’t include stops nearby the places of interest. Our guide book didn’t really have a good Metro map (shame on you Eyewitness guides) so we were not really aware of how extensive it was. But taking the metro is just as easy as metros in NYC, Tokyo, Paris etc. The tickets were 1 € and just be sure to catch the train in the right direction. It is easy to get from Termini to places like Piazza di Spagna (Spanish Steps) and Colosseum. We felt a bit uneasy when we got off at the Termini station and the police were there with big German Shepards that were sniffing people up for drugs and whatnot.
There is a lot of talk about Roman (and Italian) drivers being a bit…eh..agressive :-) But we didn’t have that much trouble when walking around in Rome. In bigger intersections there are traffic lights …but remember the green man doesn’t last very long…and it was the first time I experienced that there was not only a green and a red man…but also an orange man. I guess that indicates “You better hurry up” :-) I found it quite amusing to read the guidebook’s guide to crossing the street in Rome “Step purposefully into the road, facing approaching motorists with a determined glare”. Trust me…it was not that bad but you better keep and eye on the traffic because the pedestrians are not the boss around the streets of Rome.
But let’s get back to sightseeing in Rome. The hotel is located only a few minutes walk away from the church Santa Maria Maggiore. Parts of the church date back to the 5th century and I guess in most other cities it would have been a main attraction. But in Rome it has to “compete” with so many other amazing building so there were hardly any tourists there. According to one source the church has been decorated with some of the first gold Christopher Columbus brought back from America. We only walked around and we found a tourist information stand where we picked up a free map made in connection with TrambusOpen. This company runs double-decker buses around Rome and the map shows the routes but it also shows the points of interest in an excellent way. We were thinking of taking this on the first day to get an overview of the city. But the bus routes had been changed due to the Live8 concert so we never got around to taking it. I think the price for a day is about 15 € but the buses seemed quite crowded (at least on the open air upper deck).
We walked down Via Cavour (a bit more quiet compared to the parallel Via Nazionale) as it seemed to lead down towards the centre of town. It didn’t take long before we started seeing some ruins when looking into the side streets on our left hand side. Nikki and I were both like “Is that….??”….and yes, we were starting to get the first few glimpses of the Colosseum. But I think we were even more stunned when we came to Via dei fori Imperiali. This street was laid out by Benito Mussolini in the 1930’s and it connects Piazza del Colosseo with Piazza Venezia. Here you also get a great lookout point over the Forum (Forum Romanum) and Palatine areas. Most of the Forum is in ruins today but this was the heart of ancient Rome. I’m not sure why but it is quite breathtaking to look out over this area and realize that this is one of the places where our modern civilization started.
We came to Piazza del Colosseo early in the morning on bus 75 and we were not sure if we were going for a tour or not. But then a woman came up to us and asked us and it was due to start it only 5 minutes and it also included a tour in the Forum and Palatine area. So we agreed and we paid about 18 € per person (where 10 € is the entry fee to the Colosseo itself). We started by listening to our guide on the outside and she told us the history of the building…I’m not sure if I found here narrating amusing or very annoying…but we did get quite a lot of information. You may want to consider a guided tour where the guide has a microphone and you can hear them through headphones - makes it easier to hear over the commentary of other tourists. In the end we were taken into the Collosseum and we didn’t have to line up to get in. Some say that it is a bit of an anti-climax to come inside the Collosseum. Sure, if you expect to see interior like in “Gladiator” :-) But we knew that there were more ruins waiting for us inside but I still found it spectacular. Remember to find the stairs and get to the higher lever, enjoy the view and try to imagine what it must have been like with 50.000 spectators :-)
There are stalls selling cold drinks right on the outside of the entrance to the Collosseum but it is of course more expensive compared to crossing the road to the Spar. Near tourist attractions you end up paying about 1 € for a small bottle of water while you can get a 2 litre bottle for about 0.5 € at the grocery store. There were also quite a few beggars around. One lady was walking with a stick and she was bent so far forward that she looked like she was about to fall over. This position also hid her face. There is nothing funny about people begging but this became a bit comical because kids started getting curious so they were bending over too to get a glimpse of the beggar’s face.
Forum (Forum Romanum)
After we had walked on the Palatine hill we returned to the Forum area to check it out further. I will not go into details about the ruins that you find in the Forum. Take a few hours and walk through the area with a good guidebook or get a guide to show you around. In the area you will find ruins like basilica of Constantine and Maxentius, Rostra, Temple of Saturn, Temple of Castor and Pollux, House of the Vestal Virgins, temple of Vespasian, temple of Julius Caesar etc. The list goes on and on actually and it seems like they are still working on excavations on different locations.
Tip! I think that the ticket you buy at the Collosseum is also valid to enter Palatine. You can also buy a ticket to enter Palatine and use this at the Collosseum. This is probably the smartest as the line is always longer at the Collosseum ticket counter.
The museum contains statues, frescos, paintings etc and it is easy to get overwhelmed by all the stuff on display. I have a hard time getting over the fact that there are that many ancient pieces that are so well made. Like the bronze sculpture called Spinario. This sculpture is a piece that dates back to the 1st century BC! And there are also the remains of a huge statue of Constantine in the courtyard that dates back to the 4th century. The statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Piazza del Campidoglio is actually a copy. The original 2nd century statue can be found in Palazzo Nuovo.
Across the road (Via dei fori Imperiali) from Forum you can see the remains of the Trajan’s market. Built in the early 2nd century AD by emperor Trajan this complex contained 150 shops and offices and I guess you can call it the shopping mall of that time. I’m not sure if it is possible to get a tour of this place…I can’t remember seeing any people there the times we walked passed but according to the guidebook it should be possible to enter this site.
Vittorio Emanuele II monument
The area around the Pantheon is buzzing with life. The fountain in the piazza in front of the Pantheon has freaky looking creatures squirting water :-) And along the edges of the piazza there are restaurants and coffee shops. One of the most famous coffee shops is Tazza d’Oro. The first time we went in there I wanted to try out an espresso so I said “caffe” as you are supposed to. But then he asked me back “freddo?”. He caught me of guard and I couldn’t remember what freddo meant so I said “Sure, why not” :-) Well, for all of you that don’t know Italian freddo means cold and when I got to the counter that is what I got…a shot glass of ice cold coffee :-) We tried the (hot) espresso later on and it was good. I also recommend trying the ice coffee (no, not the caffe freddo). The ice coffee seemed to be crushed ice mixed with coffee and then topped with whipped cream. Sounds a bit strange but it was very tasty and very rich.
Back to the Piazza Navona…the shape of the piazza is long and thin and this is due to the fact that it is built on the ground of an old circus…Circus Domitianus). The piazza is today very lively as it has lots of restaurants along the edges and there are lots of people trying to sell everything from blinking flying saucers to fake brand name hand bags. In the middle of the piazza you will find the most spectacular of the fountains in the piazza: Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (fountain of the 4 rivers) designed by Bernini. According to the guidebook the 4 giants represents the great rivers of the time (Ganges, Danube, Nile and River Plate).
around – Campo di Fiori and Trastevere
We continued to walk until we came to the Tiber again and we crossed it using Ponte Sisto to get into the area Trastevere. The bridge was commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV …the same guy who had the Sistine chapel built. According to the guidebook he was behind a lot of building and restoration around Rome and it got him into financial trouble and in the end he had to levy a tax on the prostitutes to raise more money :-) We found the area around the bridge to be a bit dodgy. When we crossed it there were a couple of people begging for money and a strange looking guy walking around with a dog that didn’t look too pleasant. The Trastevere area has a reputation of being the home of the most authentic Romans - whatever that is. We didn’t walk around that much in the area but it looked very nice with narrow streets laid down with cobble stone and it was also very quiet since there wasn’t that much traffic around.
We got up really early to get to the assembly point near the Vatican at 8.15 am. We took bus no. 40 as usual and we got there just in time. And no, you don’t have to bring your passport to enter the Vatican :-) The line outside the Vatican museum was already starting to grow so we all got into the line and we were told by the guides to keep a tight formation to avoid people cutting into the line. The museum entrance is located on the right hand side of St. Peter’s …follow Via di porta Angelica from St. Peter’s square to get there. We paid 30 € for the tour and 12 € for the entrance itself. There also seemed to be the possibility of hiring the museum’s own guided tour headsets. Even though we got there early it took about an hour before we got in and the security is about as tight as most airports.
Tip! The sun is strong even in the morning and it gets hot really fast. Remember to bring some water as water at nearby kiosks costs 1 € for a small bottle. And remember that there is a dress code when going into churches…no shorts or sleeveless tops allowed. So I love my convertible pants on days like that :-) Our tour lasted quite long (until about 2 pm) so remember to bring along something to nibble on and something to drink so that you don’t loose interest in the tour. After the tour there are places to eat around the tour assembly point (Piazza Risorgimento).
Our guide Tony was pretty good and he was also quite amusing and we got lots of details that I don’t think we would have found in the guidebook. But he was also a bit full of it. When one kid outside our group started questioning some facts, Tony got into a discussion with him and in the end Tony said “I have a PhD on this subject”…end of discussion in other words :-) Our guided tour of the Vatican Museum started out in a court yard where we took a look at posters that showed what to expect once we got to the Sistine Chapel. Then we started the tour itself and we got to see statues, painting, frescos etc. As in the Louvre it is easy to get totally overwhelmed so Tony focused on some pieces in each hall. One of the pieces that I remember the best is probably Laocöon. This 1st century AD statue shows the Trojan priest Laocöon fighting with sea serpents to protect his sons. The details on the statue are just stunning. Just look at the muscles, the veins and the rib cage. All of this makes the statue look alive. Along the route there are lots of rooms that impressed us. Breathtaking paintings in the ceiling, floor mosaics etc. Another room that impressed me was the Gallery of maps. Not only is it amazing with a 120 meter long room with an amazing ceiling. But the walls also contain maps that show Italian cities and places in the 1500s and it is so detailed. You can see aqueducts, buildings, trees etc. And then you have the Raphael rooms of course which contains beautiful frescos. I guess most people have their favourite but I enjoyed the “Room of the Segnatura” and the piece “School of Athens”. Not only is it beautiful and in amazing colours (remember that it was done around 1510…only a few years after Columbus sailed to America) but in this piece Raphael has also included portraits of fellow artists at the time such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Bramante. Check out this page for more information about the Vatican museum.
The highlight of the entire tour is the Sistine Chapel (Cappella Sistina). There are works of arts on the walls and in the ceiling but Michelangelo’s ceiling that is the famous attraction. When we got in, the chapel was really crowded and there was a buzzing sound caused by all the people talking to each other about the frescos. What was really noisy was the guards (that looked constantly peeved) going “shhhhhh” when they caught someone speaking and from time to time there would be an announcement over the loudspeakers informing people in different languages to be quiet and photography was not allowed. The guards would also clap and shout when they found people taking pictures or filming. In my opinion it is silly that it is not allowed to take pictures because most people were trying anyway. But even if there were a few distractions it is still safe to say that the Sistine chapel is quite breathtaking. The ceiling is made up of many small frescos that show stories from the bible and was made around 1510. The Last Judgment on the one wall is also quite amazing and Michelangelo worked on this piece between 1536 and 1541. My advice is to forget about taking ‘forbidden’ pictures while you are there…just look and be amazed :-). And then you can take a virtual tour of the chapel on this page.
By this point we were a bit exhausted as we had seen treasures like nowhere else. But we were not done with the tour yet. The last building we were going to visit was St. Peter’s basilica (Basilica di San Pietro)…the world’s biggest church. The size of the church is just amazing. The church was built on the site of St. Peter’s tomb and some claim that his remains are still kept in the church but I doubt it - the body of one of the founding father’s of the catholic church so ‘freely’ accessible?. Tony took us to some of the unique pieces like Pietà the marble statue by Michelangelo from 1499. But it was very tricky to take good pictures due to the crowds, the light and the fact that it is kept behind a glass wall. It was a bit hard to keep up with Tony as my eyes constantly glided towards the huge dome (also by Michelangelo) and the rays of light that came in through the windows created an almost divine effect (holy spirit shining down on us?). It is hard to really understand the size of the dome until you see the people that are walking around up there. Other pieces that are beautiful are the throne of St. Peter in glory by Bernini and the 20 meter high baldacchino (also by Bernini). We also stopped by something that looked like a big painting. It turned out to be a copy of Raphael’s Altar of Transfiguration…and if you walk really close you will see that this is fact a mosaic! It took six people 9 years to finish this piece in 1767. We did walk around in there for quite a while but I think this is a place you can return to and always find something new. I have to admit that we didn’t go up in Dome to enjoy the view and I regret that. But hey we have to save something for a later visit as well :-) I would also like to do the Scavi tour to see the excavations of the Necropolis (City of the Dead) beneath St. Peter's. Please check out this page for more information about the church.
In the Vatican you’re a bound to notice the Swiss guards. These are the protectors of the Vatican and the Pope and this is a concept that dates back to the 1500s when Pope Julius invited Helvetian soldiers to join the small Vatican army. Today there are certain criteria that need to be fulfilled in order to join this force: you have to be: Swiss, catholic (of course), have attended military school in Switzerland, at least 174 cm tall, single etc. I find it fascinating that someone volunteers to join a force where you have to dress up like a clown. I’m sorry, but I can’t help think that their colourful outfits must make it difficult to get respect from visitors. We saw quite a number of people posing with the guards and some of them didn’t look that pleased with being a side show for tourists. Dan Brown, author of Angels & Demons, claims that it was Michelangelo that designed the uniforms but if you check out the official page of the Swiss guard you will find out the truth :-)
We also returned to the Vatican at a later stage to participate in the general Papal Audience held every Wednesday from 11:00am. We didn’t get any tickets to get seats but we just showed up on the St. Peter’s square a few minutes before the “show”. The square was not that crowded actually but there must have been a few thousand people there. The square itself is quite a sight with the obelisk in the middle (brought to Rome by Emperor Caligula in 37 AD), two large fountains and the surrounding colonnade with the statue of 140 saints. In connection with the papal audience there were several larger TV screens that were set up around the square. And after an introduction in different languages Pope Benedictus XVI came into the square on his car and he was driven around in the middle of the crowds. I hope that I don’t offend anyone by saying this, but it was more or less like being at a concert and the Pope was the star. The Pope ended up at the Church’s entrance and held his speech in different languages (French, Italian, Spanish, German, and English) - pretty impressive, I think. We didn’t stay for the whole ceremony but it was an interesting experience. Take a look at the Vatican page for more information.
Time to go home
What probably amazed me the most about Rome is the long history. When we were living in crummy little huts around Stavanger there had already been several hundred years of an advanced civilization in Rome and huge temples and the Coliseum had been constructed. A trip to Rome really puts things into perspective.
I have heard some horror stories from others that have gone to Rome. Pick-pockets, credit card fraud etc are just some of the keywords. So we were of course a bit sceptical before we went to Rome but I don’t think that Rome is any worse or better than other larger European cities when it comes to this. Keep an eye on your valuables in crowded places (like bus and metro) and you should be fine.
Before I went to Rome I always had Paris listed as my favourite European city. I think that I have to re-evaluate this list now :-). Now I regret that I didn’t throw that coin into the Trevi fountain to ensure my return to Rome one day because Rome is certainly worth a second and third visit. The Norwegian author Henrik Ibsen wrote some of his pieces in Rome and he said that you need at least three lifetimes to see Rome :-) The next time we visit I hope that we will get time to take the Scavi tour (excavations of the Necropolis (City of the Dead) beneath St. Peter's), look at the view from the dome of St. Peter’s, maybe go to Ostia near the coast etc. So my final recommendation: if you are going to Italy stay as long as you can in Rome…you won’t run out of things to see and do :-)
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Feel free to check out the next section: Eating and drinking in Rome :-)