Luckily we’d had an early night because Holiday Boot Camp meant we had to be up and out and on a train to Rome by 9am. It was a bit of a mad dash but we made it.
I’ve already told the story of how Florence came to be added to our itinerary. Rome was crowbarred in later after I’d already booked our flights. I was speaking to my sister, Bec, about how Mum had chosen Florence on the basis of her own trip there almost two decades ago. Bec said that Mum had told her the story to which Bec had replied “Really? Because I would say definitely go to Rome over Florence”! Well that threw a Roman spanner in the works! Of course Mum hadn’t said a word and I knew she was contenting herself to be happy with whatever she saw. I called her immediately whilst simultaneously googling the distance between Florence and Rome. By the time she answered I could happily inform her that there was only a couple of hours in it so we could do both if she was happy for us to step up the pace and forgo the lazy meander through the Tuscan countryside. She gleefully agreed.
The addition of Rome to the itinerary also spurred my dear friend and Romaphile, Gabby, into action. She set to work cobbling together a very detailed 4-day itinerary of her favourite city to ensure we make the most of our time here. With all the chaos of trip preparation, this was actually the first chance I had to look at it in detail and both Mum and I were excited by all that lay in store for us.
I’ve been to Rome before but it was over a decade ago, I think they were still using the Lira at the time (as opposed to the Euro). My sister, Rach and partner, Marlon were living with Matthew and I in London when our baby sister, Gabrielle and her then-boyfriend, now-husband, James, came to visit us. The six of us took a side trip to Rome (and another to Amsterdam – but that’s a whole other treasure trove of travel stories!). It was a quick visit from a different time – my memories of it are patchy though it left the impression of a big, hot, dirty and too-often-dodgy city (of course much of that relates to our accommodation in one of the world’s worst hostels – we had 5 beds between 6 of us in a ‘dorm’ which was really just a corridor to the festering communal bathrooms. James was eventually given a grubby mattress to wedge on the floor between two sets of bunks). With that in mind, I was braced for impact for our arrival and advised Mum to stay close and hang onto her luggage (I also remember Termini station being particular dire).
We alighted the train however, to find a very different scene to the one I anticipated. It was crowded with all walks of life but there was absolutely no sense of menace. I’m certainly a more confident traveller nowadays but I think there’s more to it than that. To begin with, the station appears to have had a major facelift but also, with each subsequent visit, I’ve found Italy to be cleaner, safer and more welcoming. I haven’t ventured far south yet where it’s reputed to be pretty sketchy in parts but I’ve heard that the same is increasingly true down there too. Even outside of Termini station in our search for a phone, we felt perfectly safe though it clearly isn’t the most picturesque part of the city!
We found a phone and called Frederico – our airbnb host for our stay in Rome. We made arrangements to rendez vous at his (spare) apartment where we’ll be staying for the duration. A taxi delivered us to our lane way mere moments from Piazza Navona in the heart of the ancient city. Shortly after, the perfectly Italian Frederico pulled up on his Vespa and let us into the gorgeous ground floor apartment. It’s small but sweet and perfect for our needs not to mention much more affordable than a hotel but with ten times the charm and character. He gave us a map, orientated us, plied us with local advice and scooted off leaving us to our own devices.
Without further adieu, we referred to our suggested itinerary which naturally had our first stop as Piazza Navona – built on the site of a once magnificent stadium, the square became a public space used predominantly as a market place. It’s most impressive attribute is its grandiose Baroque Roman architecture and the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) by Bernini at its centre. We took in as much of it as we could before needing to revitalise with another Italian classic – coffee! We follow our directions to nearby Sant’Eustachio – an iconic cafe which has been keeping Romans wired since 1938. We stood at the counter, Italian style, and tossed back our coffees as the locals do.
Just a hop, skip and jump from there and we arrived at The Pantheon. Boom – there it is! Built in 126AD, it still stands today as perfect as it ever was and still proudly boasting the worlds largest unreinforced concrete dome. It’s architectural accomplishment is too astounding for me to fully comprehend. We entered, jaws dropping and eyes raising to the circular opening at the centre of the dome shedding light (and at times, rain) on the intricate detail that has not only stood the test of time but transcended it with its ageless beauty. Built as a temple to the Gods, it is still a consecrated Roman Catholic church which we were constantly being reminded of over the loud speakers.
Back out in the forecourt, latent memories surfaced of my former visit. Back in the day, I was never responsible for the reading of maps or navigation of any kind and consequently, I really don’t have an overview of the geography of Rome beyond the few hundred meters Mum and I have traversed so far. From where we stood – I could not point you in the direction of the Colosseum or The Vatican or The Spanish Steps but there’s one place of such cultural significance and historical importance that it’s location is emblazoned in my memory forever! With a confidence that a muddle-headed-wombat like myself has no right to have, I led my mother directly to Gelateria della Palma – home to over 150 flavours of gelato, where Rachael once had a cone with TEN different flavours of CHOCOLATE! Mum and I didn’t even attempt to break her record settling for a measly three flavours each.
It was still early and we were eager for more adventure despite having already completed our assigned mission for the day. We looked at the map and decided we were way too close to the Trevi Fountain to not dive straight in, proverbially speaking of course. The route was lined with untold grandeur at every turn but the moment the fountain came into view, it all paled by comparison. Again, my greatest joy was seeing Mum’s face light up as bright as any Northern Lights as she beheld the beauty of this most iconic and imposing Baroque masterpiece. We made our way through the crowd to the fountains edge to toss in our coins – a ritual made famous by the film Three Coins in the Fountain which allegedly assures the throwers return to Rome. Trying to photograph the moment had us in fits of laughter and me even more so when my mild mannered Mum turned all Italian-Mumma on the pestering souvenir sellers with a swift and stern “NO!” that saw them back right off!
The sun was starting to set and we thought it would be nice to see the fountain lit up at night. That gave us enough time to wander up to Piazza Venezia to see the Vittorio Emanuele II monument – a very ostentatious war memorial dismissively referred to as ‘The Typewriter’ by locals who regard it as out of place in it’s ancient neighbourhood (the Forum and Colosseum are right behind the hill on which it’s built). Without knowing this context, My sister Gabrielle and I had referred to it as the ‘Beer and Pizza Museum’ – I can’t even remember why exactly though think it had to do with our weariness at all the monuments to everything in Rome. Without wishing to further denigrate the significance of all the monument represents, it also forms the craziest traffic roundabout in Rome! We stood a while marvelling at the utter lack of road rules and inability of the attendant Police to enforce any! They seemed quite resigned to their own redundancy and just st
ood about chatting and occasionally blowing a whistle.
We meandered back to find the Trevi Fountain not as lit up as we had expected and so moved on to Taverna la Copelle for great pizza and terrible wine. We were very quickly hemmed in by two full tables of French and Italian priests and their wards – we wondered if they were part of the swell of religious representatives in town following the Popes resignation and imminent election of a new Pope.
Very full and extremely tired, we used the last of our energy to walk back to Piazza Navona and then home, stopping only to fill our water bottles at one of the 2,500 ever-flowing drinking fountains around the city known as nasoni, meaning ‘big nose’ which is kinda gross… the imagery, not the water – the water is fresh and free and saving the city from choking on plastic water bottles. But that’s enough pontificating for the now though I hear a vacancy just opened up for such a position…
Patches McMum: We trained to Rome and arrived at our very Italian apartment by taxi. The adventure in Roma begins! Didn’t want to unpack just yet so we could get out and about. We walked to the Piazza Navona. I’m just amazed that it was built in 1AD and the beautiful Baroque Roman architecture. The fountain of the four rivers was just so beautiful and being so old, it is still so perfect. The piazza is surrounded by restaurants and artists and other souvenir sellers and has that feeling of ‘aliveness’ – you can’t help smiling.
Then we went to the Pantheon – bloody old, built in 125AD and still the most complete ancient building in Rome. The amazing thing is the concrete ceiling which is still the largest unsupported concrete dome in the world. What impressed me most was the absolute size of it and how they worked out to make the dome stand by itself! Even thinking to put drain holes in the marble floor! The funniest thing was every 5 minutes someone would come over the loud speaker and say ‘silencio!’ reminding us that it’s still a church.
Coming to Italy, one of the things I wanted to experience was gelato and we found Gelateria della Palma with 150 flavours! We didn’t count them all but we had a fair go of about 6 (3 each).
Then to the Trevi Fountain! Just as I pictured it from the movie ‘3 coins in a Fountain’! A man kept pestering us to take our photo and sell it to us and in my best Italian way, I shook my finger and said ‘No!’ and then he ****** off!
We passed the Piazza Colonna and viewed the Vittorio Emanuele II monument (war memorial) from a distance. It stands at the centre of the major roundabout in Rome with cars, buses, trucks, bikes etc going wherever they pleased but ‘organised’ by two policemen – the motorists and pedestrians didn’t seem to notice them though and went about their own way.
For dinner we had beaut pizza but the red wine was not like I thought it would be. We were surrounded by French religious. Walked home, exhausted but very happy and very pleased with my personal tour guide!