First day in Rome.. disaster. Ok maybe that is a little dramatic, but for future reference, those little tags they give you when you check in your luggage are pretty damned important (who knew).
So, we started our journey at Zagreb, checked in and were told to ‘re-check in’ for our connecting flight in Belgrade. Seems simple enough, right? However, I seemed to have misplaced my luggage tag when the moment came to check in for our Rome flight. No bother, I thought since luggage should, (I repeated SHOULD) have final destination stickers on it. We mentioned it at check in and the lady didn’t seem too concerned and so off we went to board our next flight. Now, Kristina was pretty mad at me for losing the tag, but I assured her “you don’t really need those anyway”‘… hmm, cue the well-deserved “I TOLD YOU SO” a couple of hours later on arrival in Rome.
Ok, maybe not a couple, she suppressed the urge long enough for me to dry my sodden cheeks in the taxi, after realising my suitcase was not on the luggage conveyor, in fact it didn’t even board our connection. My suitcase was floating around somewhere in Belgrade airport (I hoped and prayed) since the lady in Lost & Found assured me that I didn’t have any luggage in the first place! Never mind, we decided to continue to suitcase search at the hotel.
The hotel was rather basic but homely, with a lift that made you fearful of the twilight zone every time you entered; but with heavy suitcases (ok, suitcase for now) 6 flights of steep stairs were much less welcoming. On arrival to the room, we tried every means of contacting Belgrade and Air Serbia, with little success via phone and so an email was sent, in Croatian in hopes that they’d pick it up in time for me to locate my case before we left Rome!
Low and behold, half an hour later, there it was! An email stating my case would be sent on the next flight that evening! Hallelujah! Straight out of the door and on to figuring out the cheapest way back to the airport via an amazing pizza place of course. Yes, I had picked out a hotel located 200m from Pinsere, an award winning pizzeria that serves the best pizza I have ever experienced. No, this is not an exaggeration, read the other 1000+ trip advisors that say so too. We tried their championship winning pancetta, pumpkin and provolone pizza; It was insanely good and just what we needed to numb the pain of the impending airport journey.
Anyway, long story, short, I was reunited with my suitcase and only an afternoon of potential toursiting was lost! When we eventually arrived back in Rome at around 9pm, exhausted and starving we hobbled to a street side restaurant for dinner accompanied by a much-needed glass of wine. Carbonara and tomato pasta was served by attentive waiters and the wine was wonderful. Well-fed we headed back to the hotel for an early night in hopes of beginning our second day in Rome.
Day two began with an early alarm in preparation for our trip to Vatican City. The Vatican was located around 30 minutes from the hotel on foot and via metro-line which gave us the perfect chance pick up pastries from the patisserie close to the hotel. We negotiated our way onto the correct metro and managed to ear-wig directions from a local Italian lady which placed us on the right track to the Vatican, arriving just in time for our slot. Thank the Lord we had booked online, as the touts were out in full force and the queues were insane. Considering we had booked for a 9 am arrival, those without tickets must have already been there for a considerable amount of time.
The Vatican museums are something not to be missed; a labyrinth of rooms and hallways in which to lose yourself. At one point, we actually did want to leave and still managed to get lost inside another 3 or 4 galleries. The architecture of the museum is something to be admired, with wide, spiralling stone staircases, columns and marble flooring, and walls lined with rich tapestries that leave you in awe before you’ve even reached the exhibitions. The museums are split into art galleries and rooms filled with artefacts dating to early ancient Egypt and Rome.
There are incredible displays of Egyptian and Roman artefacts from vases and sculptures to mummies inside their crypts. The hieroglyphics carved into stone dating back thousands of years left us awestruck, along with the perfectly persevered corpses wrapped in their protective bandages and placed delicately behind glass for hundreds upon hundreds of visitors to behold daily.
We made our way through the galleries, past the tapestries depicting religious moments of importance and on towards the Sistine Chapel. Not before coming across the highlight of my visit, our visit; “that is one sassy baby!” I exclaimed in reaction to a painting of what I believe to be baby Jesus and Mary. Kristina did not look impressed until she turned to behold the image for herself. I will let you all be the judge of this one, but seriously Jesus is full of sass in this painting, just look at that swagger; blasphemous as it might be.
Anyway, moving past the hilarity of my observation we made our way to the Sistine Chapel, which is immeasurably impressive. We were ushered in through the crowds and simultaneously hushed by security as a mark of respect for such a holy place. Not that this impacted on the hundreds of tourists squeezed inside, who continued to chatter and take sneaky snaps of the imposing ceiling artistry. I believed a little light should have been allowed in and suggested to Kristina that they draw back the curtains (the walls are covered in murals of curtains); she was not highly amused, unsure whether I was trying to be funny or just confused. I can assure you it was the former. We spent a good while inside eyeing the extraordinary work of Michelangelo before moving out and on towards the latter parts of the museums. At this point, after close to 3 or maybe 4 hours of wandering, we were more than ready to find some new, old buildings and artefacts to look upon.
We found our way out of the maze that is that Vatican, blinding ourselves when emerging into the midday sun to embark on our next point of interest. St Peter’s Basilica was within close proximity and thus the most logical step on our trip. Stocking up on water and ice cream, we made our way down the cobbled streets towards St Peter’s Square where we were greeted by a queue that snaked in between the vast stone columns and around the square. We joined hesitantly, melting in the midday heat and waiting as slowly but surely the queue diminished and we reached the Basilica’s entrance within a little under twenty minutes. The Basilica is impressive and beyond, having been completed in 1626 as a reconstruction of the original 4th-century Basilica. It is home to over 100 tombs containing the remains of past Popes including the largely debated remains of St Peter himself; the world’s first Pope. There is also a Bronze statue of St Peter on display, whose origin remains largely debated. It is custom to rub or kiss his foot on passing which is a closely followed tradition made apparent by the smoothed-out surface of the right foot when compared to the perfectly preserved left. One of the most recognisable and notable parts of the Basilica is the Baldacchino that towers 96-feet over the main altar and is made entirely from bronze that is said to have been taken from the roof of the Pantheon.
On leaving the Basilica, we headed towards Castel Sant’Angello also known as the Mausoleum of Hadrian; a cylindrical building overlooking the river Tiber. Instead of continuing our pursuit of Roman relics, we decided it was time for some lunch and picked out an idyllic spot at the bottom of Ponte Sant’Angello. We chose a small Italian eatery along the banks of the Tiber; the Tevere as known locally. Here was the perfect place to rest weary legs and refuel with more pasta of course! Whilst enjoying lunch at a leisurely pace we had the opportunity to plan our next stop which meant we didn’t plan at all. A busy morning of sticking to schedule left us thirsty for the chance to wander the streets of Rome aimlessly just taking in the surrounding atmosphere.
Deciding to give the tour of Castel Sant’Angello a miss we headed across Ponte Sant’Angello (perfect tourist snap material) and towards the network of tiny side streets on the other side. Well away from the tourist traps of Vatican city and central Rome we stumbled across boutique stores and wine shops as well as small art galleries selling vintage prints. The streets began to widen as we approached Campo di Fiori a small public square south of Piazza Navona. Unfortunately, we’d arrive mid-afternoon and so too late for the famous food market, nonetheless, there was something else to draw us into spending a little more time there; The Drunken Ship. This is an American owned bar that sits in an ideal people watching location on the corner of Campo di Fiori. Prosecco in hand we whiled away a little time watching locals and tourists milling around and taking in the atmosphere before making actual plans for our next move.
The Victor Emmanuel II Monument was our next destination, a monument that dominates the Piazza Venezia and in Kristina’s opinion is ‘the most beautiful building in Rome. Unfortunately, there are many who do not share this opinion giving the monument less flattering descriptions such as the ‘Wedding Cake’ or “Typewriter”. The monument is built entirely from stunning white marble and features a huge staircase leading up to a colonnade. It also features the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the bottom and of course, a Statue of Victor Emmanuel himself above the tomb. Due to the time, we had reached the monument we were unable to board the glass elevator to the rooftop, leaving us to plan time to slot the visit into one of our other days. Instead, we hiked back down the staircase and round to the right of the building to take on another slight climb to reach Capitoline Hill.
Capitoline Hill is the smallest of the seven hills of Rome and overlooks the Roman Forum. Since we had reached the peak gone sunset, there was little option to explore Capitoline Museum, not that we needed to fit anymore history into our day! We spent a little time wandering around the square, sitting people watching and eyeing the Capitoline Wolf sculpture, before embarking on our journey back towards the hotel; exhausted. We made a promise to return to Capitoline square should we have the chance over the next couple of days or trip. The journey back to the hotel was a long and steady trek, but impressively, we didn’t get lost once. Reaching the hotel at around 9 pm, we’d made plans to grab some Pinsere Pizza and an early night. Unfortunately, the people of Rome do not appear to value the need for late night (I say late, is 9 pm late?) pizza and so our plans were scuppered by a closed pizzeria. Thus, it was on to find the nearest shop (not easy, at 9 pm in Rome) and gather some goodies to satisfy hungry stomachs until the morning.
We started the next day with breakfast, (if you can call croissants and Cannoli breakfast) at Il Sicilani, a small café on the corner down from our hotel. We then headed off to the Colosseum to begin our day of visiting the Ancient sites of Rome. On arrival at 9 am the queues were already of considerable length, yet moving quickly and so avoiding tours and ticket touts we made our way to the entrance. A ticket to the Colosseum affords you entrance into the Forum and Palatine Hill. The Colosseum is magnificent, despite the picture you build up in you head based on films like Gladiator and google images, nothing quite prepares you for the sheer size and architecture of the structure. We ambled around the pathways dodging the camera flashes of awestruck tourists before I found the ideal place to get a proper panoramic shot; albeit a bit of a climb! Clambering up some of the stone steps and holding on to the not so ancient iron railings I was able to stand above the crowds to really take in the area. Despite the sheer size and grand nature of the Colosseum, I did believe the 45-60 minutes we spent there were more than enough to fulfil the experience and was ready to push on to our next stop.
The Roman Forum and Palatine Hill are accessible via the same place and conjoined, much to our confusion as we left the Forum before seeing Palatine first time around. Thankfully a very nice security lady allowed us back in despite our tickets being void; this was our first tourist mistake of the trip (the luggage debacle, long forgotten). The Forum is home to a plethora of ancient ruins and was once the epicentre of Roman life. Walking amongst the ruins is almost surreal as we attempted to imagine how life looked thousands of years ago. The Arco di Settimio Severo towers 23m over the forum and is one of the most notable ruins along with the various temples, including that of Saturn, built in 497 BC. The whole area is filled with an almost mind-blowing history; it really is nigh on impossible to get your head around the idea of standing on the same grounds as Cesar once roamed.
The Forum leads on to Palatine hill which is the centermost of the hills of Rome. The hill stands above the Roman Forum and overshadows Circus Maximus on the opposite side. The hill, along with the form is shrouded in greenery with foliage creeping up through the cracks in and around the ancient ruins. This area of Rome is not to be missed and is well worth the 1000s of steps spent getting lost in and amongst the ruins. Of course, we spent a good few hours getting lost amongst the amongst the ruins and shrubbery baking in the midday heat and posing for typical tourist selfies and candid explorer pics before deciding it was time to move on in search of lunch.
As previously mentioned, sight-seeing is hungry work, not to mention in Rome where our average midday step count was well over 15,000. Thus, we went in search of Piazza Navona and the Pantheon with feeding intentions are the forefront of our minds. The Piazza was about a 20-minute walk from the ruins through the busier metropolitan areas of the city. We traversed a network of main and side streets before finding one leading up towards the pantheon. This particular street was filled with small tavernas, cafes and bars each offering tourists specials and traditional dishes. After a rather heated debate on where to eat (decision making is not my strong point), we sat a cute place towards the far end of the street. The food was good, both deciding on salmon gnocchi and the entertainment in the form of a slightly intoxicated waiter kept us well amused.
After taking our time over lunch, we decided to spend the afternoon lurking around Piazza Navona, people watching and exploring the Pantheon. The sheer size of the Pantheon dominates its surroundings, an architectural phenomenon steeped in over 2000 years of history; another fact one struggles to get my head around. It is almost perfectly preserved from the 60-ton columns to the oculus in the centre which allows light into an otherwise darkened building. Inside it is clearly a place of worship as we were hushed on entry where as hundreds of people milled around, some toursiting, some in prayer. The Pantheon is another one of those must-see Rome attractions, yet I’m still unsure if even now I can understand the real magnitude of it.
After fighting our way through the crowds to leave the Pantheon, we headed toward Navona for a chilled early evening wander around and possibly another ice-cream; when in Rome and all! The Piazza is one of the largest in Rome and a very popular tourist destination since it houses the imposing Fountain of four rivers in its centre. We spent a little time wandering around the piazza before deciding it was time to head back to the hotel via the Spanish steps; not the original plan but my not-so awesome map reading skills led us there! Even so, from our brief encounter, I can assure you that the architecture of this beautiful roman district is something you should experience at a slower pace; there really is no need to reenact Rocky!
After a walk that took 75%, no, 100% longer than originally planned we arrive back at the hotel and in no mood to head back out. Thankfully, Pisere was open allowing us to brood over two distinctly wonderful and different pizzas, one with artichokes and another decorated with zucchini flowers. A cheeky little vino was also purchased to accompany our in-room feasting and then it was off with the lights to get some shut eye ahead of our final day!
Our third and final day in Rome began with a trip to Villa Borghese, a landscaped garden and public park containing numerous buildings, sculptures and a man-made lake in the centre. The park is a world away from the busy streets of Rome, traffic noise and the general hum of civilisation. Instead, there is the faint sound of birds, the rustling of grass in the summer breeze and near silence in comparison. The park is also home to Galleria Borghese, one of the world’s most famous art galleries. Since we had viewed many an ancient monument and museum on our trip we decided to opt out of this one and spend a little more time admiring the natural beauty of the park and wander down to the lake. The lake is home to a variety of wildlife from birds to turtles floating along its surface attempting to dodge the rowing boats lazily passing by. Despite, looking like a fun way to spend a few minutes, we decided the heat was a little too hefty to rent out a boat and instead enjoyed sitting amongst the trees in the shaded areas.
After greater exploration of the park, we found ourselves at the Terrazza del Pincio, Pincian Hill which overlooks Piazza Del Popolo and offers the most stunning views over the city of Rome. Here we fell victim to an obvious tourist trap as a man thrust a rose into our hands and a cotton bracelet around our wrists, whispering something about luck from Africa as he secured it tightly. Yes, we had been officially had, and after bartering him down to two Euros (it was literally all we had) for items we definitely did not want, he disappeared in search of more women to scam with his good luck serenade. Never mind, roses made for excellent photo props in one of the most picturesque and romantic spots in the Eternal City.
Paparazzi session over we headed down to Pizza Del Popolo to admire the ancient obelisk that towers above its centre. The obelisk is said to date back to 1300 BC and was moved to Rome from Heliopolis on Emperor Agustus’ orders. If made its way into the Piazza from Circus Maximus in 1589 and has stood there ever since. The Piazza leads on to Via Flaminia a road built in 220 BC connecting Rome to the Adriatic, and two hungry tourists to their lunch destination of choice, well almost! After three days in Rome and minimal consultation of restaurant guides and reviews, we decided it was time to make an informed decision about our final days eating schedule, after all, it was one of the things that attracted us to Italy in the first place. We’d chosen to eat at Edoardo II, a small and cosy boutique restaurant, conveniently located on the other side of the city! Thus, we had just enough time to make a pit stop by the Trevi Fountain without risking starvation.
The Trevi fountain doesn’t need a big introduction or elaborate description, its domination of the Piazza di Trevi speaks volumes. Showcasing the Greek god Oceanus often mistake for Neptune, the fountain is one of the most visited places in Rome. We stopped for a little while to admire the incredible architecture of the fountain before the bustle of the crowds reminded us it was time to move on and find our lunch spot.
Edoardo II is a quirky yet cosy restaurant located not too far from Kristina’s favourite Victor Emmanuel monument and nestled in the corner of a dainty side street. Inside, the place is decorated with bright pinks, flamboyant paintings, glitzy ornaments and chandeliers decorated with top hats and more. The owners and hosts are almost as loud as the décor and made for an entertaining and noteworthy late lunch. We shared a carafe of house white to accompany mussels followed by seafood risotto and pasta; easily the best meal we’d experience in Rome. Finishing the meal with an espresso to perk us up for our final tourist stop; the glass lift of the Victor Emmanuel monument.
Yes, since we missed out on a visit to the rooftop of the monument on our first day in Rome, we’d decided there was no way we could leave without taking a trip to the top. Reaching the glass elevator requires a hike up the front steps of the monument which is no mean feat in the late afternoon heat. The elevator fits around 12 people in and the lines were very short making the visit much better than expected; the view from the top is amazing, a 360° view of the city. The ancient ruins of the Colosseum and Roman forum can be seen on one side, whilst the dome of St Peter’s Basilica is in sight on the other. We spent a good half an hour atop, taking in the view and resting our weary legs, 3 full days in Rome had resulted in over 60km walked! Finishing up our last day in Rome we headed back to the hotel to relax before planning a visit to Harry’s Bar for farewell cocktails that evening.
Harry’s Bar is an internationally renowned bar in Rome’s Via Veneto district and it is easy to see why. Situated on the busy main road, it stands out from the small boutique stores and hotel eateries close by. We had spotted Harry’s on our walk to Villa Borghese earlier that day and were intrigued enough to visit. It features in the 1960 film ‘Dolce Vita’ and the atmosphere of the 60s transcends through the place from the black and white film laced décor to the tuxedo clad waiters. We took a seat outside and ordered two Rossini’s; champagne cocktails infused with strawberry liqueur. The cocktails were extremely good and the atmosphere better. We sipped our drinks to the sounds of Sinatra and chatted about our Roman adventure the clocked told us it was time to head back; tomorrow we had a 5 am alarm and a train to Pompeii.
Overall, our time in Rome was short but memorable; the streets are made to be walked for weeks not days and I believe there is still so much left to discover. Away from the ruins and museums, Rome has so much more to offer. My favourite moments were not those spent exploring the remains of temples and amphitheatres but those spent resting our feet on park benches, cloud watching and enjoying the sounds of the city. When not focused on travelling from A to B to see the next big tourist attraction, our times wandering through forgotten side streets and quiet back roads made our Rome trip complete. Of course, the history is enthralling and captivates the imagination but it’s the atmosphere and pace of Italian life that is sure to draw us back to the Eternal City.