A weekend in the Eternal City – part 1

It’s said that if you throw a coin into the vivid blue water of the Trevi Fountain it will ensure your return to Rome. It must have worked, because I’ve been back about a dozen times in the last few years. Rome is a city where one is always conscious of the past, and all the more so for me, because there are almost as many layers of my own history in Rome as there are of the history of civilisation itself. It is a very special place for me, and one I feel certain I’ll continue to visit for the rest of my life. Last weekend another layer in the history of Rachel in Rome was laid down, as I made my first journey to Rome as a married woman. This felt like a pretty big deal considering that I’d got to know the city over the course of several years as a lonely singleton (during which time I wrote a lot about Rome). In the many trips I’ve made – whether by myself or with friends or relatives – I never once dared to imagine that I would one day wander its romantic streets with a husband in tow. The occasion this time was said husband’s birthday: the trip was my way of getting around the fact that Lee is notoriously difficult to buy presents for, and ever since we went to Rome on our first anniversary in 2013, he’s been talking about wanting to go back. I was more than happy to oblige!

After an amazingly smooth journey from Birmingham Airport to Fiumicino, we arrived at our Metro stop just before 9pm. The first thing I noticed on emerging onto the street was that there were two or three heavily armed soldiers/military police (as in, machine guns, pistols, truncheons, armoured vehicle, bulletproof vests) stationed each side of the road by the Metro entrances, and therefore right outside our B&B. I was somewhat alarmed, as I’ve never seen this in Rome before. We were staying in the same B&B I’ve been staying in for about six or seven years, and it’s the same it’s always been – except that we were greeted by two friendly women we didn’t know, but who did know that we’d been before. Both spoke excellent English, so we asked them about the soldiers. They said that it’s normal now – ever since the Paris attacks, all the Rome Metro stations (the entrances and some of the platforms) have soldiers guarding them, and some of the city’s monuments too. A sad sign of the times. But although it made us feel as though there was a war on, it did also make us feel a bit safer I guess.

Anyhow, we were a bit hungry after our flight so we dumped all our stuff in our room and headed out to get a slice of pizza from the place next door, as is tradition. We ate it while walking up to St Peter’s, where we were delighted to find that the Christmas tree and nativity scene were still up. This was about the 12th time I’d been to Rome, and I don’t remember ever having seen it decorated for Christmas before, so that was lovely.


We wandered up as far as Castel Sant’Angelo before heading back to get some rest. In the morning it was time for me to unveil part two of my birthday surprise for Lee, which is that we would be joined by two of our friends. I’d arranged for them to meet us for breakfast at a cafe on Via Nazionale, and when we got there they were just approaching the cafe at exactly the same time as we were, so that was excellent timing. He couldn’t believe they were there! It’s always surreal meeting people from back home in a foreign land. We had a nice breakfast and then set out to explore, passing one of my favourite bits of ancient Rome on the way: Trajan’s markets. Looking down on this complete Roman street, you can just picture the Roman shopkeepers selling their wares in each of the travertine-framed entrances (which are strikingly similar to some modern shop entrances in Rome). It’s almost like travelling back in time – or at least it normally is, when there isn’t some hideous sculpture like this one spoiling the view!


Another interesting feature of this particular part of Rome is Trajan’s Column, the frieze of which depicts Trajan’s victory in the Dacian Wars, which ended in AD 106. In the years since I graduated from my Classical Archaeology and Ancient History degree, I’ve sadly forgotten a great deal of what I used to know about ancient Rome, but I was pleased to find that enough information came back to me to be able to supply a few interesting facts to my companions.


Here you get a slightly better idea of the Column in its context. This is what’s left of Trajan’s Forum, and there would have been library buildings around the Column in Roman times.


From there we went up onto the Capitoline Hill for the classic view over the Roman Forum, the administrative and ceremonial centre of Rome and its empire. This is always my favourite thing to show people, because the scale of it is so breathtaking. What’s even more amazing is that these monuments were once half buried, and this area was known as the ‘cow field’; refreshing my memory courtesy of Wikipedia, I learned that the level of the Forum rose significantly over the centuries because many of the buildings were dismantled in Medieval times and the area was used as a bit of a “dumping ground” for rubble from pulled-down buildings. The sheer amount of work that must have gone into excavating it all is astonishing. If you know what you’re looking for, you can see the Colosseum in this photo.


The Piazza del Campidoglio on the Capitoline Hill is charming, designed by Michelangelo and presided over by this fabulous bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius on his horse. In Roman times the statue stood somewhere else (possibly the Roman Forum), and then it was moved to outside St John Lateran, another basilica in Rome, before being put here, in 1538, on a pedestal also designed by Michelangelo (who apparently didn’t think it should be plonked right in the middle – I guess he was overruled on that one). This is not the original, but the original survives in a superb state of preservation in the museum that borders the square. Interestingly, while most Roman bronze statues sadly ended up being melted down in Medieval times to make coins and things like that, this statue was one of the rare survivors because it was incorrectly identified as the first Christian emperor, Constantine. Had they known that it was actually Marcus Aurelius, they would have considered it a “pagan idol”, and it would almost certainly have been lost forever. That fortuitous case of mistaken identity has left us with the only complete bronze statue of a Roman emperor from pre-Christian times.


This is the view looking up Michelangelo’s gently sloping steps – the ‘cordonata’ – to the aforementioned piazza. As you can see, the entrance is flanked by two statues depicting the mythical twins Castor and Pollux, which are from a Roman temple.


Walking up to the Colosseum, I noticed that there was a lot of construction work going on, and as I suspected, it was to do with the installation of a third Metro line, which seems to be taking forever to build (not surprising, considering how much archaeology there is under there). The Colosseum itself had scaffolding, too, though not for the same reason obviously. Luckily most of the amazing facade of the amphitheatre was on show, so it didn’t spoil the view too much.


Our next port of call was the Trevi Fountain, where we each threw in the customary coin. We timed our visit well as regards the fountain, as it’s just been cleaned and restored (funded by the fashion house Fendi), and it had been empty and full of scaffolding for a while. (Incidentally, we weren’t so lucky with the Spanish Steps – it’s their turn to be restored now, which means you can’t walk on them and the view from the top is sadly all boarded up, hence why there aren’t any pics of them in this post.)


From there I led the way to the Pantheon, which is always a magnificent sight as you emerge from a quiet side street into the busy piazza it inhabits.


The outstanding feature of the Pantheon is, of course, its stunning dome – not, to my knowledge, equalled or bettered by modern architects/engineers until the 1950s. I love the fact that it has a hole in the top, and the building is particularly atmospheric when it rains and the precipitation falls in a surreal fashion to the floor. The Romans famously invented concrete, but if the Pantheon is anything to go by, they were a lot more imaginative with it than we are now.


The thing I love about the Pantheon is that it gives you a much better idea of what public buildings in Rome would have been like; it is the most complete surviving building from antiquity. Many Roman structures survive in a remarkable state of intactness, but they’ve usually been stripped of their marble (those pesky Medieval people again), leaving behind neat rows of flat red bricks with holes where the metalwork that once attached the marble would have been. Inside the Pantheon, the marble walls are mostly intact, thanks to the building’s preservation as a church, and it gives one a sense of the grandeur that would once have been a feature of many of the other Roman buildings we know as mostly brick ruins today.


I wonder whether there were pigeons everywhere in Roman times?


It’s a short walk from the Pantheon to yet another beautiful piazza – Piazza Navona – where we stopped for Prosecco/beer in a restaurant that had outdoor heating. The obelisk you can see here is one of several ancient Egyptian obelisks brought to the city by the Romans, though its hieroglyphics are Roman and are in praise of Domitian. Like Rome’s other obelisks, it had a different position in Roman times and was moved here from elsewhere in the city, which must have been quite a feat in the days before cranes and lorries (it would be a challenge even today, one surmises).


Piazza Navona preserves the shape of Domitian’s stadium, where athletes once raced around. I think it’s fascinating the way Roman features have occasionally been crystallised in the street plan. There’s little to give the game away that this is where the piazza gets its shape from, but the lower parts of the stadium are built into the surrounding buildings; there is some Roman masonry visible at one end from outside the piazza.


Having finished our drinks, we felt the onset of hunger, so we made the short walk from Piazza Navona to one of my favourite Roman restaurants. I took this photo on the way; I love the winding streets of Rome – the tall, ochre-coloured buildings with their quaint shutters.


There was only a short queue for Da Baffetto, as it was quite late for lunch. It’s one of the most popular places to get pizza in Rome, and it’s really affordable. The kitchen is right there in front of you as you go in, so you can watch the chefs preparing pizza by the pizza oven as you go in.


The pizza was as delicious as ever, washed down by a nice big jug of red wine. I have so many versions of this photo from over the years!


Hunger abated, our walk continued towards the Vatican. I was reminded, yet again, of how frequently one is met in Rome by incredible ancient monuments filling the view at the end of the street. In this case, it’s Castel Sant’Angelo – originally Hadrian’s Mausoleum, later converted into a fortress.

castel sant angelo

This poser of a seagull seemed to be enjoying being the centre of attention for passing tourists. The angel statues are by Bernini, and are in need of a good clean.


The queues for St Peter’s weren’t too bad, so we waited a short while to pass through the airport-style security points and made our way inside.


I think “gargantuan” is the only way to describe the size of this basilica. It’s the biggest Christian space in the world; those letters on the gold border alone are 6.6ft high. A photo doesn’t really capture the incredible scale of it.


It was quite late in the day, and we didn’t have time to climb up into Michelangelo’s dome, so we just admired it from the inside. There was some religious music playing – whether live or recorded, I don’t know – which made the experience all the more atmospheric.


By the time we emerged the sky was starting to look a bit turbulent, with an interesting ripple effect. It did end up raining, though nothing too major, thankfully.


From there we ended up wandering around the Campus Martius area in search of somewhere to sit down and have a drink to rest our weary legs. As you can see, it was still looking nice and Christmassy in places. At length we found a lovely little cafe/bar where Coke was priced at €3 and Prosecco was priced at €4 – so that was a no-brainer!


We ended the evening in another of my favourite restaurants, Chicco di Grano, in Piazza Madonna dei Monti. I know the waiter there after several years of going back there, and he very kindly gave us all a free glass of Prosecco to welcome us back. All in all, a lovely end to a packed day in my favourite city! And I think I’ve probably rambled on for quite long enough for one post, so I’ll tell you all about the second day of our stay in my next post.

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