Rome, as they say, wasn’t built in a day. And judging by the amount of historic rubble lying around, it’s won’t be rebuilt all that quickly either.
But that’s not to say that it can’t be experienced in a day.
Never having been to Rome, it was my choice as a gateway to a month in Italy’s north. And then I saw how close were all the big-ticket sites: the Colosseum, the Forum, the Vatican, the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain. The blue line on Google Maps made it look like a Formula 1 circuit, which only reinforced that with a reasonable mix of haste and speed, and the occasional pitstop, it could be done in the 24 hours I had.
OK, it’s not leaving time for tours, or even the queues for the tours (e.g. the Colosseum and the Sistine Chapel), but I was determined to catch my evening train for the north still having got a feel for this noble city.
Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore
Having taken a small hotel near the main rail terminal, the quest was to start with the Colosseum, via a church rated by a friend as the best in Rome: the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano, but almost immediately my route is blocked by another, the Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore.
In spite of – or maybe because of – the guards with machine-guns at the door, I venture inside to find a stunning church of marble and granite columns, mosaics dating back to its origins in the 5th century and a ceiling decorated with gold said to have been brought back from America by Christopher Columbus.
San Giovanni basilica
The San Giovanni basilica is at the other end of Via Merulana, making this 1.5km street one of the city’s most significant boulevards, but fortunately not its busiest, so it makes for easy strolling – have you worked out yet that this whole escapade is being carried out on foot? – up to a church acknowledged as the first Christian basilica in Rome and still the city’s official cathedral. Again, its interior is breathtaking, as everywhere you look is something wondrous, from the gilt ceiling to the mosaic floor and the massive sculptures of the apostles.
As I am to discover as the day goes on, Rome’s main visitor spots are awash with opportunists, who are either trying to sell you selfie-sticks, join their queue-jumping tours or, for a small fee, let you take their photo – dressed, as they are, as gladiators. At the entrance to the major cathedrals add vendors of cheap shawls, which out of respect should be worn into the churches by ladies otherwise dressed in singlet tops and cut-off shorts on what is becoming a rather sticky summer’s day.
Colosseum gets clean-up
Two detours completed, it’s just minutes down the narrow Via di San Giovanni to the Colosseum. It’s so well-known, and such a symbol of Rome, that for me there’s nothing really startling about it in the flesh. Except, maybe, the scaffolding. It’s there as part of a $35 million cleaning project, the first in the Colosseum’s 2000-odd-year history, to remove pollution grime, work so delicate that in some places they’re using toothbrushes.
Next comes the Forum, barely five minutes away. For a whistle-stop tourist such as I, this one’s a beauty, because it’s all excavated ruins in the open, and easily peered into from footpaths and walkways. Interpretive boards explain what used to be there, but sick of being pestered by photogenic gladiators, I move on to its monumental neighbour.
The monumental Victor Emmanuel
The Altare della Patria, or Altar of the Fatherland, was completed in 1925 to honour the first king of a unified Italy, Victor Emmanuel, whose massive sculpted likeness, seated on a horse, sits in front of an enormous colonnaded structure. It caused plenty of controversy at first, because of its size (it’s still the largest monument in Rome), that it was not done in the true Roman architectural style, and that they had to chop up one of the fabled seven hills of Rome to make room for it. Here you will show disrespect by sitting on the steps; transgressors are shamed by a guard blowing a whistle and pointing.
The Altare dominates Piazza Venezia, seen as the central hub of Rome, and once across it, it’s up the elegant retail street Via del Corso and then down a small side street to the Piazza della Rotonda and the Pantheon. This 1900-year-old temple is round, simple and notable for the opening at the apex of its dome that casts a moving ray of light around the wall as the sun makes its way across the sky.
Pizza and beer make great combo
Fortified by a lunch of a margherita pizza and a Peroni beer – the ubiquitous cafe combo in Rome – I do a quick circuit of the colourful Piazza Navona with its Baroque facades and trio of fountains and strike out for the Vatican City.
For the first time today, I reckon I am astounded. Turning a corner after having crossed the Tiber River, which on this early summer’s day is barely a trickle, I wasn’t prepared for the scale of the St Peter’s Basilica and the symmetry of the piazza in front. In the early afternoon sun, the whole placed glowed, and the circular colonnades around the piazza bring blessed relief, especially for those queueing to get inside. I pause long enough to overhear a tour guide pointing out the window from which the Pope delivers his regular Sunday morning wave, and then take aim for the Spanish steps.
Window-shopping Via dei Condotti
Skirting the imposing Castel Sant’Angelo, commissioned by Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century as a mausoleum for his family, I re-cross the Tiber and head up the chic Via dei Condotti. The long lunchtime siesta is not over yet, so alas it’s window-shopping only in the likes of Hermes, Salvatore Ferragamo and Bulgari, although one shoe boutique has opened for an obviously well-heeled customer, judging by the shoe boxes strewn all over the floor, her bored-looking boyfriend and a stony-faced pair of what must be minders.
Everyone else in this part of Rome, it seems, is just a bit further along: either in the square in front of the Spanish Steps, lounging on them, or slowly making their way up or down. The steps at least give you a bit of height for a rooftop view over the city, and with them ticked off, it means only two more sites on the list.
The first is on the Via Veneto, Rome’s most exclusive street and immortalised as the setting for La Dolce Vita, Federico Fellini’s celebrated film of 1960. But not so sweet is what’s underneath Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, a nice enough church with a crypt that contains the skeletal remains of some 4000 friars of the Capuchin order. Their bones are not so much interred here as used to decorate the place, artistically lining the walls or, in some cases, dressed in friar’s garb and hung from the ceiling.
The air is fresh back up on the Via Veneto, but by the time I find the Trevi Fountain, there’s a whiff of disappointment in it. The site is covered with scaffolding and cloths as part of its restoration, and the famous fountain is dry and penniless. So I spend my pennies elsewhere, at a tiny gelati boutique around the corner called San Crispino.
I’m left with an hour to grab my bag from the hotel, 15 minutes away, and get to the station.
As my train roars north, I rest easy knowing I made it to everything on my list on a walk that Google said was 15km and my feet know was every minute of eight-plus hours. But it’s the little things about Rome that you don’t find on TripAdvisor’s top 10 that play on my memory.
How the place is awash with oleander trees; apparently Roman soldiers used an oleander extract for hangovers.
Police are everywhere, and boy do they strut in their uniforms, especially the ones with red-striped trousers and carrying swords.
You see the sense of owning a tiny two-seater car such as a Smart.
All those signs aren’t pointing the way to the nearest hamburger joint; the Rome Metro also has a large M on a red background as its symbol.
And, most intriguing of all, did the man I saw hobbling towards the Spanish Steps on crutches, with a rifle case slung over his shoulder, actually shoot himself in the foot?
Rome can be included on many European itineraries booked through RACV Cruises & Tours – and members save up to 5%*.
Tag it on to a river cruise or a Balkans or Mediterranean tour. Call 1300 850 884 or visit racv.com.au/cruisesandtours for more details. *Conditions apply.
RACV members save on guide books, maps and many more travel items at RACV shops. And don’t forget travel insurance – go to racv.com.au/travel for a quote or call 13 13 29.
See turismoroma.it for more information
Jeremy Bourke visited Rome at his own expense.