As one of the world’s most beautiful and historic countries, Italy is an unforgettable experience. Some years ago I was fortunate enough to spend roughly three weeks touring the country. Not only was I overwhelmed with the culture, art, architecture and romance, but Italy offered a beautiful kaleidoscope of regions with unique experiences in food and wine.
I arrive at Aeroporto Leondardo da Vinci di Fiumicino in the country’s capital, Rome – the heart of the central Italian (Italia centrale) region of Lazio, and home to nearly 3 million people making it one of the most populated cities in the European Union.
As the capital of the Roman Kingdom, the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, Rome has a history stretching more than 2,500 years and is regarded as one of the birthplaces of western civilisation. With such a powerful introduction, it’s not hard to believe Rome is Italy’s most popular tourist destination and the perfect start to my Italian discovery.
A city filled with treasures and masterpieces of Roman art and architecture I had such little time (three days) to experience it all, and was grateful to be staying at a hotel located nearby many of the attractions. With the sun shining brightly overhead, a warm breeze gently blowing and trees and flowers in bloom, walking the streets of Rome is an urban delight, and best of all – it is free!
Sights in Rome range from Roman to the Renaissance to Baroque. Walking through the back streets in and around Rome revealed masterpieces in every one of these architectural ages. The magnificent Colosseum was within 500m walking distance from my accommodation and so it was naturally the first place I visited, but I recommend booking ahead or getting there early if you want to avoid the long queues to get inside and explore the amphitheatre.
Dating back to AD 72, the Colosseum hosted deadly gladiatorial contests where slaves, criminals and prisoners of war were forced to fight soldiers in training, and even wild animals, to the death. There is also some speculation that the Colosseum was flooded and used to re-enact famous sea battles, but much debate exists on the matter.
At the foot of the Arch of Titus was where I received my first encounter with the beggars and gypsies who are scattered throughout the city. Either directly or indirectly, you will invariably get asked for money from these interesting characters when in Rome. As I finished admiring the 15m-high arch with its beautiful reliefs commemorating the capture of Jerusalem over the Jewish Zealots, I saw what appeared to be an elderly woman hunched over in prayer with a small bowl in front of her so passersby can see and give. Some beggars can really pull on the heart strings, thrusting their seemingly starving children in front of you and crying for help until you give them some coin. The advice I received was to ignore her and walk on, which might seem heartless and cruel but it certainly is better than being taken advantage of; many of these so-called beggars are just efficient con artists.
Walking along via sacra (Sacred Way) from the Colosseum will take you to the site of the Roman Forum, the ceremonial centre of Rome under the Empire. It is a confusing patchwork of ruined temples, arches and basilicas and I recommend viewing the whole area from Capitoline Hill to best appreciate the layout. The main sights are the Basilica Aemilia, the first building upon entering the Forum and a meeting place for businessmen, banks and tax collectors of the day; the Arch of Septimium Severus (no, this is not a character fromHarry Potter) is possibly the best-preserved of the monuments and the marble relief depicts military triumphs; the Temple of Castor and Pollux, the twin brothers of Helen of Troy; the shrine dedicated to the goddess of the hearth known as the Temple of Vesta; neighboured by the House of the Vestal Virgins, an enormous complex where the priestess and her Vestals lived; and the Basilica of Constantine, huge arches and ceilings that remain giving a visual guide to the enormity of the Forum’s public buildings.
A maze of narrow streets filled with restaurants over-flowing with people (tourists and locals alike) lead me to the Pantheon. The Pantheon is a temple to ‘all the gods’ and is arguably Rome’s best preserved ancient building. I cannot explain how exquisite this building is – externally, there are three rows of eight giant circular pillars left over from the original erected building by Agrippa that support the cylindrical form atop which sits the dome; from inside, the centre of the dome has a circular space in the middle of it which is known as the oculus and is the only source of light to all below. To highlight the cleverness of the Romans, the dome is equal in radius to the height of the cylinder making it perfectly proportioned. But what about when it rains, you say? They thought of that too! There is a gradual slope in the floor to a drain located in the centre so any rain that falls in is lured there.
In the north east of Rome is the Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish Steps, the heart of tourist Rome since the 18th century. The steps, which were built to link the square with the French church above, are crowded with visitors day and night and are a perfect location to watch the world go by. The Fontana della Barccia at the foot of the steps is unique in that it is the only fresh water fountain in Rome to be sunk into the paving.
The most famous fountain in Rome, and also its largest, is without doubt at the Piazza di Trevi, the Trevi Fountain. The central figure is Neptune joined on either side by two Tritons in differing poses suggesting the contrasting moods of the sea. With legend holding that visitors who throw coins into the fountain are ensured a return to Rome, I quickly found a spot on the edge, turned my back to the fountain and launched a euro into the water.
Of course, no trip to Rome would be complete without a visit to the Vatican. Even if you have no religious beliefs, you cannot deny the wonder of St Peter’s basilica or the magic of the Sistine Chapel and who knows, you might just bump into the Pope on your visit… On entering the Vatican I pass through an eclectic collection of art in the Vatican Museums, but none stand out as much as the Gallery of Tapestries and the Gallery of Maps. Both galleries are on your way towards the Sistine Chapel. The Gallery of Tapestries has a series of ceiling to floor Flemish tapestries in wool and silk with stunning silver-gilted threads, all from the 15th and 16th centuries. They tell the story of the Cricifixion and the Annunciation, the story of how Jesus taught the people to fish, and the Passion and the Eucharist. The Gallery of Maps is 40 maps frescoed on the walls representing Italian regions and properties in the late 15th century, and is an overwhelming view of Italy.
Michelangelo frescoed the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel in the early 1500s, working on specially-designed scaffolding. The staggering imagery is enough to take my breath away, which is somewhat apt given the strict rule of silence and ‘no pictures’ policy in the Chapel. The detailed frames depict the Creation of the World and the Fall of Man. Restoration of the ceiling has revealed unimaginable vibrancy in Michelangelo’s paintings. The walls in the Chapel were frescoed by Michelangelo, as well as other fine artists of the time such as Rosselli and Botticelli. These paintings show episodes in the lives of Moses and Christ. But just when I thought I could not be ‘wowed’ any more, Michelangelo’s ‘Last Judgement’, added to the wall fresco last, is a masterpiece unlike no other. Painted in Michelangelo’s later years, the fresco shows the souls of dead rising up to face the wrath of God. It is a sometimes frightening image said to highlight Michelangelo’s own torment in relation to his faith.
While there are many, many sights in Rome, including the Bocca della Verita and the Catacombs, so much beauty and history can really work up an appetite. While pizza and pasta are staples of Italian cuisine, in Rome crispy fried vegetables like artichoke and zucchini flowers are a regional specialty antipasto dish, and veal and lamb are great favourites. If you’re looking for a recipe to celebrate the region flavours of Rome during Italian Week, try the saltimbocca alla romana (veal slices rolled in proscuitto and sage).