In June 2017 my girlfriend and I embarked on a mission to celebrate the beginning of summer by seeing parts of Europe new to both of us. Following my completion of university, but prior to our road trip through Croatia and Bosnia, we had a short break in the city of Rome – with the full intention of doing all the cliche sightseeing that the ancient Italian capital is famous for.
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Day 1: Sunday, 4th June 2017
An early flight after a long night and morning at Stansted Airport saw us fly over Rome at sunrise. Greeted at the surprisingly small Ciampino airport in Rome by our host, Emmanuel, we each collected our Roma Pass and was driven to our apartment on the outskirts of the city. The apartment was incredible, and a cake and bottle of Prosecco left to celebrate my girlfriends birthday.
After a quick rest, snack and acquainting ourselves with the apartment we braved the heat to find the nearest Metro station to pick our way into the city. For all of our time in Rome, the daytime temperature didn’t dip below 30 degrees, which along with the general humidity of the city and numbers of people, felt like quite the culture shock after leaving dreary Blighty.
The Metro came across as surprisingly basic and busy, but for some reason accommodating and easy to navigate. The simplicity of two lines, a north-south and east-west meant that we didn’t have to worry about ending in any unfamiliar suburbs. This had caused an issues in getting from the airport, as the small Ciampino airport that connects to the UK is not directly accessible by the Metro, and the complications of navigating buses and tubes felt a bit daunting on a Sunday morning, sleep deprived in the Christian capital of Europe.
Emerging from the city’s central Metro station, Termini, we wandered the streets littered with people, baked in heat and surrounded by a curious mixture of modern office blocks and buildings, and Roman architecture and ruins.
Finding a side street cafe, we stopped for a drink and bite to eat. Here we encountered one of the drawbacks of Rome – we were “gifted”, at great expense, a souvenir by a gentleman outside. Tourist traps do seem to be an issue in Rome – over the next few days we saw numerous people selling bottled water, selfie sticks, random knickknacks and flowers. None of whom were particularly keen to take a polite “no” for an answer.
Continuing our walk, we took in the Pantheon – opting to come back on another day due to unknowingly passing by during the celebrations of Pentecost, where tens of thousands of rose petals are dropped through the oculus into the interior of the Pantheon to symbolise the Holy Spirit’s descent to Earth. This equated to a queue of people greater than any I had ever seen, as people had begun queuing hours and hours beforehand to catch a glimpse of this spectacle.
Walking back around and through, we stopped at both the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps. Both incredible pieces of architecture. Walking back to the nearest Metro station, picking up some supplies from a local supermarket (pasta, cream cheese and ham because, you know, when in Rome…), and going back to our apartment to rest up properly for the next day.
Day 2: Monday, 5th June 2017
Deciding to make the most of the time we had, and expecting queues to be a reoccurring theme, we got up early and tackled the Metro before 8am, hoping to avoid rush hour. Whilst we didn’t time it perfectly, once we took the elbows out approach that seems to work over here, we had a comfortable enough trip, a seamless change, and got off at the Colosseum. Emerging from the underground station to immediately see the enormous Flavian Amphitheatre for the first time is an extraordinary and imposing sight.
This was the first time that the scale of Rome really became apparent. Even in the early hours, increasing as the day went on, the number of people around here was staggering and police and military blockades were in place – it is worth noting, that our flight out of the UK was the morning after the Tower Bridge terrorist attacks in London, so security from Stansted was high, and also doubtlessly had a knock on effect for our time in Rome.
We had used the Roma Pass for the Metro previously, but here it really showed its value for money. Skipping the alarming queues into the Colosseum, and joining a shorter but still noticeable queue of those with the Roma Pass. Again, the queues were doubtlessly compounded by additional security checks, metal detectors and bags being checked, but the sheer number of people and testimony from other visits suggests that without a Roma Pass, and turning up at peak time, you could lose the best part of the day waiting to get in.
Inside was far from a disappointment. We picked up some digital audio guides, had the cameras prepared and went around the vast ruins. Whilst a lot of these types of tours can feel a bit of a forced interest, the history of the arena is both genuinely fascinating and at times somewhat morbid. Stories of the arena being flooded to stage giant sea battles, and the slaughter of thousands of prisoners and exotic animals ranging from rhinoceros’s to eagles in front of blood lusting crowds for the opening celebrations both incredible and grim in equal measure.
A couple of hours later, we walked over to the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill and joined yet another queue. The Roma Pass, unfortunately, didn’t allow us any queue jumping here, but whilst it probably took 30 minutes to get in – made to feel longer by the intense heat – it wasn’t as bad at it first looked.
The Forum is a vast space, and whilst busy, allowed us a wonderful stroll around to see endless ruins, incredible architecture and views of the city of Rome, the Colosseum and the Forum itself. Whilst public water fountains are found in Rome, they did seem particularly scarce at this point and a large gathering had formed at the first one we found, up towards Palatine Hill. The area is full of fascinating history, mythology and a real insight into life in roman times.
Suffering from the heat, we took the Metro back towards the apartment, again managing to hit it at rush hour. Funnily enough, despite the numbers of people and confined space, the Metro itself is incredibly cool and was a convient place to escape the heat from the surface. Another early night and cheap dinner at the apartment, planning our third day in the city.
Day 3: 6th June 2017
Today we managed to time our morning escape better, getting up earlier and beating rush hour on the Metro. We also had the foresight to stock up on fluids from the supermarket, to avoid another hunt for fresh water.
Our plan for the day was focused solely on visiting the Vatican City and museums. First though, we decided to detour via the Pantheon once more to see if we could visit it without the crowds. We had a lot more success this time! Taking up the impromptu offer from an English speaking guide outside, we had a talk and tour of the captivating history of the building.
We then began the long walk up to the Vatican, stumbling across Piazza Navona with its three beautiful fountains cooling the breeze, where we stopped for a coffee before continuing.
Vatican City was a fairly long walk, and incredibly busy. As with the Colosseum the day before, pre-planning meant we were in a queue of hundreds rather than thousands and after a short wait to find an audio guide, we found our way in.
The Vatican is an astonishing city/country, and its museums are extensive. There is, in all honesty, far too much to take in and appreciate fully in one day. None-the-less, we took in a number of the rooms before stopping for a pleasant lunch of toasties in a plaza in the center.
After lunch we meandered through the museums before making it to the Sistine Chapel. An incredibly important location to Christians as the purpose of the chapel currently is the site of the Papal conclave, the process by which a new Pope is selected. The Sistine Chapel, with its world renown ceiling and frescoes painted by Michelangelo in the early 1500s, is considered one of the worlds major artistic accomplishments. Since these paintings were revealed 500 years ago it has drawn in thousands of visitors every day. As with a lot of the rooms in the Vatican Museums, seeing this involves a lot of walking among a lot of people, with some parts feeling very much like being herded along. Tour groups don’t help the matter, jostling with each other for prime places in front of their speaking points.
Leaving the Vatican, many miles later, we found our way back out to a bar doing food – we stopped for beer, chicken burgers and chips. The phrase “when in Rome” doesn’t quite carry, but at this point we wanted to eat and drink the first thing we found. From here, we got straight onto the Metro, and back to the apartment.
Day 4: 7th June 2017
On our final day, still reeling from three days of solid walking, we decided to venture to the edge of Rome nearer the apartment to find some souvenirs.
We had an awkwardly timed flight, in the mid-afternoon, our three-day Roma Pass privileges had expired meaning we could no longer use the Metro without paying and whilst our time in Rome had come to an end, we had over a week in Croatia, and a further week in Barcelona immediately to follow. We had also ticked off all of our ‘ten things to see and do in Rome’, and felt that a restful day (as restful as flying can be) would be a good option.
We picked up some souvenirs, including a seemingly ironic snow globe (at the time anyway) from a variety of independent shops and found a small pizzeria and bakery where we were kindly given some delicious pasta along with our orders.
We went back to the apartment to pack, before accepting Emmanuel’s lift back to the airport to fly back to Stansted.
Rome is a simply extraordinary place. I would argue that its incredible appeal, is contributing to its own issues – all of which, can be attributed to the sheer volume of people there.
Without the numbers of tourists, there would be no tourist traps and prices would be lower to match demand. At one point in the center, not far from the Trevi Fountain, we paid €7 for a 0.3 liter bottle of Heineken beer. In context, the following week in Croatia, we found Osjusko beer at roughly €2 for 2 liters. That’s quite a mark-up for a country only separated by Slovenia and the Adriatic, and translated to just about everything from souvenirs and entry to the attractions, to food and supermarkets.
Rome should be high up everybody’s list of places to visit and see, even if only once. I wouldn’t for a moment say it’s anywhere near a list of places I would want to live, and any longer than the time we were there would have likely made the numbers of people more tiresome. So whilst we’re in no rush to go back, and can happily tick it off as a place we have been, it will make a lovely short, city break again in the future.
by Tom McBeth and Natasha Bryan