Rome is one of our favourite cities. Everywhere you go in Rome history stares you in the face, it's everywhere, it's unavoidable. We first visited Rome on a Contiki tour in 1998 and it would be fair to say we didn't really have a clue. We never even had a guide book. It was only when we got home that I flicked through a guide to Rome and suddenly realised just how much we'd missed - we'd never even visited St Peters! In 2004 we returned and stayed in a charming little apartment near the train station, walked all over the city and had a great time. But we still hadn't even touched the surface. So now, in 2009 we were back again.
Learning from our recent accommodation debacles we made sure we had accommodation booked through the internet, but we couldn't get anything suitable for more than a single night. Our first hotel was on via Tiburtina, just north of the Roma Termini station, alongside the remains of the 3rd century Aurelian Wall. It wasn't the nicest of areas. I was surprised to see so much of Rome's ancient city wall intact, but then Italy's turbulent history meant that such archaic artifacts as defensive walls were required for a lot longer than in other countries. From the 8th century to the late 19th century, Rome was ruled by the Pope as both spiritual and temporal lord. It was only in 1870, when the guns of Garibaldi's revolutionary army bombarded the city that the Papacy begrudgingly surrendered its power and Rome became the capital of a unified Italy.
That night we took the underground to the Spanish Steps to join the Rome Pubcrawl. It was a huge affair with maybe seventy people attending. The route involved lots of walking and taking several public buses and the crowd, especially once the drinking started, was very unruly. It proved to be a very, very long night and the last bar was far on the outskirts of the old city, near the Pyramid of Caius Cestius. At 5am there is VERY little public transport in Rome and so I had the dubious pleasure of walking across the city, from wall to wall. One other observation about Rome in the early hours - all the homeless (and there are lots of them) congregate around Central Termini and along the Aurelian Wall. It is not a place to be walking at night.
We only had the hostel room for the one night so we were forced to rise early, clean ourselves up as best we could and move on to the next hotel. Before we moved though we decided to stop at the Termini post office and ship some more of our luggage back to Australia. Since Madrid we'd accumulated a considerable amount of 'souveniers' and other crap. So while Shelly joined the queue at the post office, I minded the bags at an internet cafe and found another hotel. The best I could find in our price range imaginatively named "Roma Rooms" or something similar and was situated in the medical district of Polyclinico. Although we didn't know it at that time the vagueness of its name was to cause us a lot of trouble.
After an hour in the queue Shelly came back, disappointed. Post Italia would not ship used clothes from the Termini station. We needed to go to the Plaza Della Repubblica office. The Repubblica office wasn't far from Termini but we didn't want to drag all of our bags there so we hopped on the underground to Polyclinico. Polyclinico was not on our map so we didn't know which way to go to our hotel, but thankfully a couple of locals new the street and pointed us in the right direction. For some reason or other though I'd forgotten to write down the street number (probably assuming that we'd be able to see the hotel sign). But there was no sign. We walked up and down the street four times. We stopped several locals on the street or in nearby businesses and asked if they knew the hotel. Most shook their heads, "No, I don't know it." Several though thought it was "just past this corner" or "on the other side of the street." No one said the same direction. It was a stinking hot day and by the time we walked up and down the street the fifth time we were soaked in sweat and totally frustrated. We'd been here more than an hour! And then, as these things always happen, we stumbled on it by accident. Roma Rooms didn't advertise itself as a hotel and it had virtually no signage. What it did have was a large metal gate out the front and underneath an intercom button were the words "Room Zimmer Chambre." It was so small we had walked passed it each time; it was only by chance that we'd stopped in front of the gate to exclaim (as we had done quite a lot by now) "where the hell is this place?" Let's just say that we rather firmly expressed ourselves to the disinterested desk clerk and then went upstairs to our room and long mid-day shower. I'm pretty certain that Roma Rooms isn't a real public hotel but provides accommodation for family members visiting their relatives in the many nearby hospitals. Certainly the area around Polyclinico isn't geared up for tourists - there were no cafes, shops or restaurants in the area open past 8pm at night and the hotel itself provided almost nothing in the way of services or refreshments.
After that lengthy and frustrating delay we decided to squeeze a bit of sight seeing. We'd visited St Peter's basilica before but it is such an impressive building we had to visit it again. The current basilica is at least the third church to stand on the reputed site of St Peter's tomb. A small shrine had been built on the site in the 2nd century. Constantine the Great then erected a huge basilica over the shrine in the 4th century. In the 13th century the basilica was almost completely rebuilt in lavish style, but in 1506 Pope Julius II decided to make his mark by tearing the whole thing down and building the largest catherdral in history. Julius spared no expense and had his favourite architect, Michaelangelo, design the thing.
It's a long queue to get into St Peter's but it's worth it. From the outside St Peter's monumental size isn't apparent; yes, it's big, but its only when you step inside that you suddenly appreciate the scale of the place. It's enormous. Everybody shuffles around with their neck cricked, staring up the ceiling. The walls and floor are expensive Carrarra marble; expensive tombs of the popes decorate the side chapels. The view from the dome are amazing. St Peters is a must see Roman experience.
That afternoon we wandered through the Plaza Fiori and Plaza Navonna (which is built over the remains of the old Roman hippodrome and retains the shape of the racetrack in the outline of its streets). We passed by the remains of Hadrian's Temple, now built into the facade of a modern building, and visited the Pantheon, the most impressive surviving building of the Roman era. The original Pantheon was built in the 1st by Marcus Agrippa, son-in-law of the first Roman emperor, Augustus. It was originally a rectangular, peristyle temple like the Parthenon in Athens, but in the 2nd century the building was rebuilt by the emperor Hadrian. He retained the front porch of Agrippa's temple including Agrippa's dedicatory inscription, but replaced the central section with a domed drum. The walls of the building are an astonishing 6 metres thick, which helped ensure the building's survival. The Byzantine emperor Phocas donated the building to the pope in 609AD and it was converted into a church. Renaissance architects were amazed by the Pantheon's incredible dome, pierced by an enormous oculus to allow in light (and rain). It was the largest dome in the western world until Michaelangelo's St Peter's in the 16th century.
The next day we decided to split up. Shelly wanted to go shopping while I wanted to explore more of Rome's Roman past. We also wanted to ship off our surplus luggage. I left Shelly to go to the post office while I went across the street to the Baths of Diocletian and the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli. This monumental bath complex was dedicated to the Roman emperor Diocletian in the early 4th century. The scale of the building was enormous, but with the collapse of the western empire a century later the bath slowly fell into ruins. All of its valuable marble and columns were pillaged leaving it an enormous brick and concrete shell. During the 16th century Michaelangelo recieved a commission to use build a church on top of the ruins. He did more than that. He re-used the barrel vault of the old bath-house , decorating it with sumptuous coloured marble slabs and a sundial/calendar etched into the floor. In the entry hall he attempted to re-create the dome of the Pantheon. The basilica represents a real turning point when the architects of the Rennaissance stopped being in awe of the Roman predecessors and realised they were capable of matching, and even exceeding them. It remains one of my favourite buildings in Rome.
A little to the southwest of Diocletian's Baths is the Palazzo Massimo. The Palazzo is now home to an extensive Roman artwork collection that used to be displayed at the Baths. The collection includes mosaics, coins,statues and frescoes. The frescoes are particularly impressive, having been removed from the walls of tombs and other buildings and then reconstructed as they would have appeared in-situ. It's a wonderful museum and highly recommended.
We finished up our day at the Forum wandering around admiring the impressive ruins, including:
The Basilica of Maxentius;
The Temple of Saturn;
The Arch of Constantine
The Arch of Titus;
The Arch of Septimus Severus;
The Circus Maximus, and;
The Castello Sant Angelo (the mausoleum of Hadrian)
Later that afternoon we sadly bid adieu to Rome, caught the train to the airport and caught our flight to Athens. Another phase of our holiday was beginning.