First day over and done with, we slept very well indeed back at our hotel, the Daysleeper B&B – so named as the owners are clear REM fans. That’s the band, not the type of sleep, although either way it would still work. On the second day, the holiday actually started. Here, for your delectation, is an account of what we got up to on that not-so-fateful sunny day.
Day Two: Part One: Roman Holiday
The previous night we both fell asleep very easily indeed at around 7:30pm. As a result, we woke bright and early, showered, shovelled a few rounds of toast in our hungry mouths and, after pre-checking a few of the local maps and Metro routes, we exited our hotel and headed out in the dry morning heat straight to the nearest Metro stop – Manzoni. Actually, the nearest one would probably have been Roma Termini, but Francesco (our host) had warned us that due to the crowds and ruffians it might be best to head to the other one. We bought tickets to Ottaviano, some eight or nine stops along the tracks. Ottaviano is one of the nearest Metro stations to the Vatican, which was the first destination of our day. To reach St Peter’s Square, the location of the famous Vatican City, we slalomed for around ten minutes through non-stop street sellers, trying to push guided tours, fake branded handbags, sunglasses and all manner of other tat on us. We then found ourselves slap-bang in the middle of the square.
St Peter’s Square is a huge area, with a long street leading up to it from the river. Two sides of the square are towered over by huge rows of ancient white stone columns, and between the two rows stands probably the most well known of the buildings, the dome-topped St Peter’s Basilica. In the centre of the square the towering obelisk has stood since the 15th Century. It was at first a pretty surreal experience, standing in a location I’ve seen on television for years. When you see the Pope delivering his address, chances are he’ll be standing on a balcony in the centre of the façade of the Basilica, overlooking the thousands of people congregating in the centre of the square. To a Mancunian, it is clear that the architects of the Trafford Centre took the majority of their inspiration from this square – certainly the dome, the rows of columns and the many statues lining the top of each one. One of the reasons we’d headed to the Vatican that morning was with a view to taking a look at the Sistine Chapel, and its extraordinarily famous ceiling, painted by Michaelangelo. Having seen the frankly ridiculous queues to enter the Vatican museum (which you need to walk through before entering the Chapel) we decided against it. Zo had already seen the interior of the Chapel, and I honestly don’t have any real interest in religious history or art. Call me a philistine, but there are other sights of Rome I had more desire to experience. Such as the bar, for example.
Photos duly taken, we meandered along Via della Conciliazione, a wide avenue lined on each side by churches, basilicas, shoe shops (!) and general religious souvenir stalls. If you’re desperate for a t-shirt emblazoned with enormous letters proclaiming that you “HEART PAPA FRANCESCO”, then this is the place to go. At the end of the Via you reach the Castel Sant’Angelo, which stands upon the River Tiber (Tavere in Italian). This is a fascinating building. Originally built as a mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian in AD 139, the structure you see now is drastically different. Around 150 years after it was built the walls were fortified in a deep reddish-brown brick and the huge circular Castel almost looks like a moored brick boat atop the walls. For the perfect postcard picture view of the Castel you walk across the bridge in front of it and look back. Statues of angels and saints adorn the bridge on either side, and the view from the other side of the river is memorable, and iconic. The location is deeply ingrained in my memory as this is where Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck head to for an evening dance (and a scrap with the locals) in the film Roman Holiday.
A short walk along the Tiber and a quick right turn later we soon found ourselves in Piazza Navona, a long sausage-shaped area with a grand fountain – the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi – as its centrepiece. The fountain, designed by Bernini, represents four major rivers in the world: the Nile, the River Plate, the Ganges and the Danube. It’s an incredible piece of sculpture. Even the local young seagulls were happily taking a swim in the very refreshing looking waters, something I wouldn’t have minded doing, with the unforgiving heat from the sun pounding on us all morning. The Piazza was busy with local painters selling their wares, some very talented, some not so, yet business seemed a little slow.
Our next stop brought us to the Pantheon, one of the highlights of the trip, and a building I had wanted to visit for many years. Designed by the Emperor Hadrian almost 2000 years ago, the temple’s name refers to “all the gods” for whom it was originally intended. It became a church in the middle ages, and the exterior of the structure has that ancient, columned appearance you go to Rome to see. It stands in the Piazza della Rotunda (‘Rotunda’ referring to the domed interior of the Pantheon itself), a busy square occupied by tourists day and night. The magic of the Pantheon is inside, though. Free to enter, the only light is provided by a large circular opening in the ceiling of the dome directly above you, designed to allow one powerful shaft of sunlight to enter. It’s a spectacular sight, which changes depending on the time of your visit and the location of the sun in the blue Roman sky. The interior is lined with many columns, and the multi-coloured marble floor, while not the original stone, is a sight enough on its own. The artist Raphael is entombed here, and his final resting place is visible through a glass covering.
The Pantheon can get a little crowded inside, partly due to the fascinating interior, and partly due to the fact that getting in costs nothing. As such, we decided to move on. Just a couple of minutes’ walk from the Piazza we happened across another famous sight of Rome, the magnificent Trevi Fountain. I’m not sure I can do justice to the spectacle of the Trevi, unless you’ve seen it in person. There is a reason why this place is so famous and so popular with tourists and locals alike. As you would expect, there are a constant stream of photo-opportunists here although it’s not that difficult to make your way to the front of the crowds for an unrestricted view of the fountain. We were happy standing near the back however – the views are just as grand back there. The fountain represents the two contrasting moods of the sea – Neptune is accompanied by Tritons on either side, one of which is struggling to control a wild horse (of the sea, but not a seahorse) and the other is finding it much easier to master another, more calm horse.
Now we were hungry. We wandered to another Piazza, the Campo dei Fiori. This is a market square, the centre of which is filled with stalls peddling spices, pasta of all shapes and colours, clothing and kitchenware. Around the outside is a selection of trattorias and pizzerias, into which all the waiters attempt to drag you if you go within 100 yards of the front terrace. We were duly coerced into a lovely little trattoria with red and white checkered tablecloths, and we sat in the sun on the terrace. Zo ordered a tuna salad, I had a diavola (‘devil’) pizza – so named due to the spicy salami topping – and we both had our first beer of the trip. The food was perfect. Inexpensive and tasty, it was an ideal lunch to replenish our energy after a tiring morning. It was at this trattoria where we first encountered the sadly very common sight of unwanted musicians playing unwanted music at the most unwelcome time, while you’re trying to enjoy lunch and a chat in a peaceful terrace. They play their songs and then enter the terrace with paper cups, requesting donations. Although I have to say it’s a much nicer way of begging for money than just asking for it, it’s really pretty rude, and he barely earned a Euro from us or our fellow diners.
As the rest of the day still gave us plenty to do, I shall leave this post there, and carry on with the next entry shortly.