Monthly Archives: February 2015

The Colosseum and Roman Forum, Rome

We’d heard horror stories of ridiculously long queues to get into the Colosseum (1.5 hours plus is not unknown, even in low season) so we made an effort to get there for opening time at 8.30am and gave ourselves a little pat on the back as we were able to walk straight through to the ticket office. We then had just under an hour to wander around by ourselves before making our way to the meeting point for the tour that we’d booked of the underground areas and third level, areas that are not accessible to independent visitors.

ColosseumThe Colosseum is a symbol of the city of Rome. Over the centuries since it fell into disuse, it has been heavily damaged by earthquakes as well as being plundered for its stone.

When it was inaugurated in AD80, the structure was called the Flavian Amphitheatre (after the dynasty of emperors who built it). The name Colosseum caught on in the 8th century, 200 years after the last spectacle was held there, and is thought to come from a huge statue (Colossus) of Nero which stood just outside. Historians aren’t sure when it was taken down, but only the base remains now.

Inside the ColosseumUs inside the Colosseum

Our tour began on a small area of stage which has been reconstructed at the eastern edge of the amphitheatre. During the games, the wooden stage would have been covered in sand to absorb any, ahem, blood that might be spilled. The Latin word for sand is arena and it is from this that we get the modern English word.

Colosseum tour guideOur guide, Cristina, on the area of stage. Behind her you can see a small area of seating which has been reconstructed from fragments found around the site

Unlike the theatres which we visited in Sicily, the entertainments put on in the Colosseum were not plays or music recitals but something which was a bit more of a spectacle. Entertainments lasted for several days with each day including staged animal hunts with elaborate sets and exotic beasts imported at great expense from Africa and Asia, as well as gladiatorial fights. Contrary to common belief these were usually not to the death as the gladiators were highly trained and therefore an expensive investment for their masters. In the lunch break there would have been executions…

Colosseum seating levelsThe amphitheatre had seats all the way around and entry was free for the spectators. Originally, the seating was in five different tiers, strictly segregated by social class

Lots of sources cite mock sea battles in the Colosseum. Cristina told us that historians aren’t sure, but if it happened it could only have been in the first couple of years before the under-stage area was completed.

Interior of ColosseumLooking down on the areas under the stage from above

From the stage, we descended the stairs into the trap rooms. Nowadays these are open to the sky and clearly visible from above but in Roman times there would have been two cramped underground floors here where a small army of slaves would have been labouring to keep the show going. Working only with the light from candles and oil lamps they would have had to raise and lower the set and the participants (human and animal) through trapdoors onto the arena floor.

Underground areas of ColosseumUnderground details (clockwise from left): corridor leading to the under-stage area; a model showing the workings of the trapdoors for set changes and protagonist entry; looking down the central alley of the underground area – in Roman times this would have been split into two floors

Looking down to the stage from the upper levels you can begin to imagine the atmosphere of the place when it was full. Historians estimate that the Colosseum might have seated between 50-80,000. To put that into context, only three of the UK’s football stadiums fall into that range (Manchester United, Arsenal and Newcastle United). Even the Beijing Olympic Stadium only had a capacity of 91,000 for the games so, even by modern standards, the Colosseum is pretty big.

Colosseum detailsDotted around the Colosseum are various carving fragments (clockwise from top left): Andrew with a huge column capital; a display of stone heads on the second level; exterior sign with the original name – Flavian Amphitheatre; there was a row of carved inscriptions around the stage – we don’t know what they say but think that they might be the Roman equivalent of advertising hoardings…

We’d highly recommend the tour to get access to some restricted areas as well as a really good explanation of the history. Our guide was excellent, despite arriving 5 minutes late and rushing us off at high speed, she spoke slowly and clearly (in our experience Italian guides usually speak at double speed), allowed plenty of time for everyone to take photographs before moving on and was happy and able to answer any questions thrown at her.

From the third level of the Colosseum we could see the eastern end of the Roman Forum

Of course we knew about the Colosseum before we got to Rome, but the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill? Umm, nope. They’re all included on the same ticket and not even the world’s slowest tourists (that’s us!) can spin the Colosseum out into a full day of sightseeing so we wandered across the street to the centre of Ancient Rome.

The Via Sacra was Rome’s main street and ran through the middle of the Roman Forum

At the eastern entrance to the Roman Forum, the first structure we came across was the Arch of Titus, erected to commemorate the sacking of Jerusalem in 70 AD

The Roman Forum nestles in the valley which stretches to the north-west from the Colosseum and contains the ruins of the power centre of the ancient city, all manner of public buildings including temples, basilicas (large open buildings used as courts or meeting places) and the Senate building. To our untrained eyes it initially looked like a jumble of column fragments, semi-complete buildings and bits of marble, but armed with a map and some information about key structures we soon began to make sense of it and were in awe of the scale of the structures.

The largest building in the Forum was the Basilica of Constantine, these mighty arches were mere side niches

One of the many temples, the Temple of Vesta, where the sacred flame of Rome was tended by six priestesses, the Vestal virgins

The Palatine Hill stands to the south of the Forum and, according to legend, is where Romulus and Remus were found and cared for by a she-wolf in her cave before going on to found the city. It is one of the most ancient areas of the city and during both the Republic and the Empire is where the aristocracy lived, so most of what is visible today is palace ruins. One of the interesting features of the hill are the brick arches that surround it. These came about when Rome’s wealthy ran out of hilltop to build in this prestigious neighbourhood and so created more ground by extending outwards!

Brick arches surround the Palatine Hill

Palace ruins on Palatine HillRuins of Domus Augustana on Palatine Hill

Overall, we found the Palatine Hill less interesting than the Forum, the area is larger and the remains seemed less impressive. Or maybe we were just getting tired. That said it was definitely worth the short climb for the incredible views. To the south, we could see down to the former Circus Maximus, Rome’s largest chariot racing track, now just a field whose outline is all that remains. From the other side, the view was across the whole of the Forum and Colosseum.

A panoramic view over the Roman Forum from the Palatine Hill, the Colosseum is to the right of the photograph

Food tour of Rome, Italy

Similar to our experience in Istanbul, organised food tours in Rome are expensive but their itineraries are well documented so we pieced together a few of the highly recommended ones and made our own. We knew we’d be missing out on the introductions, stories and explanations, but the food isn’t too unfamiliar to our British palates as, say, Vietnamese..

Breakfast – Cappuccino and Cornetto

After heading to the Testaccio area of Rome (Metro: Piramide), where most of the foody tours seems to operate, we joined the locals in Cafe Barberini to start our day with a working Italian breakfast of a cappuccino and a cornetto.

Cornetto, Cafe Barberini, Rome, Italy

A typical Italian working breakfast of cornetto, a croissant filled with Nutella or custard, washed down with either a cappuccino if you have time, or a caffe (espresso shot) if you’re running late

Cafe Barberini is also known for its hand-made chocolates, so of course we had to try one. Or two..

Handmade chocolates, Cafe Barberini, Rome, Italy

Cafe Barberini is also a chocolateria. It was difficult to choose just one, but as this isn’t the first time we’ve eaten our way through a city we knew we had to pace ourselves..
Julie chose a tiramisu in a chocolate cup (left), and I picked a cream and fondant-filled white chocolate number topped with flakes of coconut

Tasting – Volpetti’s Delicatessen

Just a few doors down from Cafe Barberini is the family owned Volpetti delicatessen.

Volpetti's delicatessen, Testaccio, Rome, Italy

Volpetti’s delicatessen, we could spend hours in here, and hundreds of Euros too.. and we wouldn’t regret a cent!

Inside, it’s a mouthwatering Aladdin’s cave of tastiness, as much a feast for the eyes as for the palate. Every conceivable surface is overflowing with delicacies. It’s absolutely wonderful.

Volpetti's delicatessen, Testaccio, Rome, Italy

A close up of the cured meats and charcuterie section. Yum!

We could have bought two of everything. The owner’s son – a large man in typical whites and every bit the stereotype of a jolly butcher – offered us a taste of the sweetest, most mouthwateringly flavourful prosciutto we’ve ever tasted. The kind of ham that would convert vegetarians on the spot. Then another slightly smoked variety that I preferred. Who am I kidding, I’d have bought both!

When we eventually tore ourselves from temptation, we reflected that it was fortunate we weren’t staying nearby, otherwise we’d completely blow our budget as we wouldn’t be able to resist popping in every day.

Interlude – Testaccio Market

You may have realised by now that we love markets – we have 15 posts about them!

Fruit and Veg stall, Testaccio Market, Rome, Italy

A typical fruit and veg stall in Testaccio market. We love the fresh produce in Italy – it tastes as good as it looks!

Originally located in Testaccio Piazza, this local market recently moved to a redeveloped block a few streets away. Most of the stall owners moved, some didn’t, and some new ones opened, though we understand it was quite the controversy at the time. It looked like almost all of the units were occupied though not all were open, but we enjoyed the variety. As usual for all markets in Italy, we found plenty of vegetable stalls, but also butchers, fishmongers, bakers, general dealers, two street-food and sandwich shops and a couple of household goods and clothing shops too.

Brunch – Pizza

Now we’re talking!

Pizza by the slice, Pizza Volpetti, Rome, Italy

Pizza in Rome is quite different to Naples. It’s pre-baked in long strips like a Roman circus (the shape of a chariot racecourse) and then cut width-wise into slices, usually with scissors

I keep trying it, but the pizza in Rome just isn’t as nice at the pizza in Naples. Oh well, the search continues :o)

Pizza by the slice, Pizza Volpetti, Rome, Italy

Our pizzas being prepared. Julie chose a Rome specialty of sliced potato, and I went with the classic cheese and cherry tomato. They also had a Pizza Bianca (front) which just looked like plain pizza bread

Interlude – Through the keyhole

One of the top-rated attractions in Rome isn’t closed on Mondays, doesn’t have entry fees, and has but a few minutes queueing time if any..

Priorato dei Cavalieri di Malta, Rome, Italy

The grand but otherwise innocuous looking door of the Villa del Priorato dei Cavalieri di Malta. Still the reserve of the more off-the-beaten-path tours of Rome as it’s a little out of the way..

What’s all the fuss about? Why do private cars and taxis pull up, handfuls of people empty out and then peer through the keyhole of the Knights of Malta’s door?

Peering through the keyhole, Rome, Italy

Even though we knew what to expect, it was worth the little uphill climb for the view..

View through the keyhole, Priorato dei Cavalieri di Malta, Rome, Italy

It’s the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica! Perfectly framed by a tree-lined path. Nice, huh?!

Snack – Trapizzino®

Sometimes there are inventions that as soon as you see it or it’s explained to you, you just think “that’s genius”. Trapizzino is one such culinary bathtub eureka moment – a fusion of freshly baked pizza dough corners filled with classic Roman stews put to use like sandwich fillings.

Trapizzino®, Rome, Italy

The Trapizzino® – anything that starts with pizza is alright in my book, but then filling it with stew and topping it with cheese – genius!

There were about 8 or 9 fillings available, including many Roman staples that involve offal or sweetbreads of some kind. Hmmm, where have I heard ‘sweetbreads’ before? We opted for the safe-sounding aubergine and parmigiana and it was very tasty indeed.

Lunch – Pasta

Testaccio sits on the Tiber river that runs through Rome, and has a long history of river trade. For reasons historians don’t yet understand, clay amphorae or vessels that were once full of olive oil were disposed of as part of this trade and formed an artificial hill near the riverbank. They weren’t just thrown down or randomly discarded – although most lay broken, they were neatly stacked and today the hill is encircled by bars, clubs and pasta restaurants.

Flavio al Velavevodetto, Rome, Italy

Another destination of the organised food tours is Flavio al Velavevodetto, famous as much for its excellent traditional Roman pasta dishes as for the backdrop of Testaccio Hill

Suppli', Flavio al Velavevodetto, Rome, Italy

We were happy to see suppli’ on the starters as we’d been looking out for it all day. It’s the Roman version of the Sicilian arancini – a filled rice-ball coated in breadcrumbs and deep fried. Fortunately it wasn’t as big as the Sicilian ones as we were starting to feel the pinch of our waistlines..

Tonarelli cacio e pepe, Flavio al Velavevodetto, Rome, Italy

Julie ordered tonarelli “cacio e pepe” – pecorino cheese and black pepper

Rigatone alla matriciana, Flavio al Velavevodetto, Rome, Italy

And I ordered the rigatoni alla matriciana, a classic Lazio pasta sauce made from guanciale (cured pork cheek), pecorino cheese, and tomato

While we found somewhere to put it all, we wished we’d ordered half-portions or got one to share as we were stuffed!

Interlude – Protestant Cemetery

Time for another break, and just inside the old city walls is the Protestant Cemetery, also known as the Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome. From their website..

Rome’s Non-Catholic Cemetery contains possibly the highest density of famous and important graves anywhere in the world. It is the final resting-place of the poets Shelley and Keats, of many painters, sculptors and authors, a number of scholars, several diplomats, Goethe‘s only son, and Antonio Gramsci, a founding father of European Communism, to name only a few.

John Keats' grave, Rome, Italy

The grave of John Keats (left) which doesn’t actually bear his name, just the inscription “Young English Poet … Here Lies One Whose Name was writ in Water”

It’s a narrow, walled, claustrophobic cemetery pushed up against the old city walls. We were surprised how many different nationalities we spotted – it seemed like anyone who happened to die in Rome (and wasn’t Catholic) ended up here. We spotted the graves of an Indian ambassador to Italy, a Japanese man who passed away recently, and the grand-daughter of the King of Afghanistan among many others.

Besides the historically famous, there were quite a few graves with elaborate headstones or statues, such as the one for Emelyn Story, whose husband was a sculptor..

Angel of Grief, Rome, Italy

Angel of Grief by W.W. Story (1819-95) for his wife, Emelyn and himself

When the perimeter of the city walls were extended, they incorporated this marble-clad pyramid as one-half of a city gate, which, fittingly is also a grave – that of Gaius Cestius. Constructed in 18-12 B.C., far outside the centre of Rome it was lost to undergrowth, shrubs and trees.

Pyramid tomb of Gaius Cestius, Rome, Italy

The tomb of Gaius Cestius. Sadly it’s not open to the public, but it’s amazing that the marble cladding is still intact given the materials pilfering that befell much of ancient Rome

Dessert – Gelato

The final course – there’s always room for ice-cream! Giolitti’s is a particularly noteworthy gelateria, as all of the ice-cream is properly made (i.e. not whisked up from powders) and we’d read that they’ll refuse your combination of flavours if they’re deemed to be un-complementary!

Giolitti's ice cream, Rome, Italy

Wearing 3 layers of clothing, we felt it was appropriate ice-cream weather. I chose coffee and pistachio, and Julie chose chocolate and cherry. We were also offered a healthy dollop of fresh whipped cream too

We agreed that the cherry and pistachio were the best flavours, and our combinations passed the test! Phew!

Supper – Prosciutto and Gorgonzola

When we got back to our apartment we needed a few hours to recover, kind of like that feeling you get after a really good family Christmas lunch. Similarly, later that evening we just wanted a little, light something to eat for dinner – then we remembered the prosciutto!

Parma Ham and Gorgonzola

The amazing prosciutto and gorgonzola we bought from Mr Volpetti earlier – a delightful note to end on

I’m still wondering what I can ditch from my pack to make room for a whole leg of Parma ham..

Appian Way, Rome

You’ve heard the phrase “All roads lead to Rome” and indeed in the days of the Roman Empire the notoriously straight Roman roads all led to (or fanned out from depending on your perspective) the Miliarium Aureum, or golden milestone, in the centre of the city, and all distances in the Empire were measured relative to that point. One of these Roman roads, the Appian Way, is relatively well preserved as the area around it has been declared a national park. We decided to explore it one sunny Sunday.

Porta San Sebastiano, RomePorta San Sebastiano in Rome’s ancient city walls is now home to the Museum of the Walls

We started at the point where the Appian Way crosses the Aurelian walls, the Porta San Sebastiano, which has now been turned into a small museum telling the history of Rome’s city walls. The Aurelian walls were the second set of encircling walls to be built around Rome, they were constructed in the 3rd century AD to protect the expanding city and extended for 19km (12 miles). We’ve seen quite a lot of sections in various places around the modern city so it was interesting to find out how they were used for defence and how the gates changed over time, for example, to accommodate new war machinery.

First milestone on the Appian WayJust beyond Porta San Sebastiano is milestone one of the Appian Way

Construction of the first part of the Appian Way began in 312BC and eventually its course ran as far as Brindisi in south-eastern Italy, the heel of the boot. Its name comes from the man who ordered its construction, Appius Claudius Caecus, a Roman censor and its initial purpose was to enable fast supply to the Roman army in a war with the Samnites in south-central Italy – an aim which was successful as the Romans won the war.

Appian WayThe first stretch of the Appian Way outside the Aurelian walls

We’d chosen to visit on a Sunday as we’d read that all but local traffic was banned on that day. If that’s the case, we’re glad we weren’t there on a normal day as a steady stream of cars seemed to be flying past, rattling noisily over the paved lane. The first monument that we had hoped to visit was the Church of San Sebastiano but, as we arrived, mass was just beginning and we didn’t really want to join in so we sat in the nearby car park to eat our lunch.

A little further along we came to the Maxentius complex. A large area containing the ruins of three buildings built by Emperor Maxentius; his palace, a large mausoleum which was built for his son and the remains of a circus or chariot racing track.

Ruins of Circus of MaxentiusThe remains of the Circus of Maxentius, our imaginations were really fired up to find out that the ruins here were the starting gates for the racing chariots

Circus of MaxentiusWe walked a full circuit of the chariot track as far as the arch at the end and around the dividing central wall, but I think chariots would have got stuck as the ground was pretty boggy

We learnt in Pompeii that Roman law dictated tombs should be outside the city walls and there are plenty of remnants beside the Appian Way. One of the most complete is the Tomb of Cecilia Metella. It’s a huge cylindrical building dating to the first century BC and looks more like a castle than a grave. Actually the battlements were added in the 14th century when a fortified building was built behind the tomb.

Tomb of Cecilia MetellaTomb of Cecilia Metella

Beyond the Tomb of Cecilia Metella is the first section of original road which Wikipedia describes:

The Romans built a high-quality road, with layers of cemented stone over a layer of small stones, cambered, drainage ditches on either side, low retaining walls on sunken portions, and dirt pathways for sidewalks. The Via Appia is believed to have been the first Roman road to feature the use of lime cement. The materials were volcanic rock. The surface was said to have been so smooth that you could not distinguish the joints.

Nowadays the cement has eroded out of the joints leaving a very uneven surface to walk on.

Appian WayOriginal section of the Via Appia near the Tomb of Cecilia Metella

We glimpsed lots of big houses lining the road, mostly behind high walls, and if cars are anything to go by, property prices in this area are high. In the extremely unlikely event that I was the owner of a classic Ferrari I don’t think I would choose a cobbled road for my Sunday drive…

1982 Ferrari 208 TurboAn immaculate 1982 Ferrari 208 Turbo parked beside the Appian Way

After this section the traffic got much lighter and it really felt like we were walking in the countryside, passing goats eating without pause and listening to birdsong. There were far more sections of the original surface here too. We continued for another couple of kilometres before retracing our steps but the final section was definitely the most pleasant to stroll.

Appian WayA much quieter section of the Appian Way

This was how I had thought the whole walk would be, a feeling of peace and quiet surrounded by fields and scattered archaeological remains.

St. Peter’s Basilica and St Peter’s Square, Vatican City State

We’ve always wanted to visit the Vatican City. Perhaps because it’s an entirely separate country within a country, the smallest internationally recognised independent state by area and by population, and the centre and focus of the Catholic faith, synonymous with the Pope and with the white smoke of conclave.

St Peter's Square and St Peter's Basilica, The Vatican City

Looking into the Vatican City from Italy across St. Peter’s Square

Or perhaps it’s because of the grandness of the Baroque architectural approach that one cannot help to be enticed. The giant oval cobblestoned plaza of St Peter’s Square simply invites. When we stood there we felt safe, surrounded by the giant Tuscan colonnades that block the peripheral vision of distractions, focussing the eye and attention on the staircase to St Peter’s Basilica. Such was Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s intent – the 4-column-deep colonnades certainly give the feeling of being embraced by “the maternal arms of Mother Church” as he described them.

Northern Tuscan colonnade, St Peter's Square, Vatican City

The northern colonnade. Another of Bernini’s touches are the two spots in the square where the rows of columns that are 4 deep appear as one

Before it was the site of St Peter’s Basilica, the area outside the early walls of Rome was known as vaticanus ager or “Vatican territory” and was a poor, destitute area. During Caligula’s short 4-year reign as Roman Emperor he started construction of a chariot race course which was finished by his nephew Claudius, but took the name of the subsequent Emperor, Circus of Nero. It was Caligula who had the Egyptian obelisk moved from Alexandria to Rome to be the centrepiece and central marker of the race course, and which now sits in the centre of St Peter’s Square.

The Egyptian obelisk, St. Peter's Square, Vatican City

The Egyptian obelisk stands in the centre of St Peter’s Square. It was moved to this spot in 1586, and the square was designed and built around it 100 years later by Gian Lorenzo Bernini

It was during Nero’s brutal games and persecution of early Christians at this circus, next to this Egyptian obelisk that St. Peter was crucified. As we learnt in Pompeii, it was the custom that bodies were buried along the roads outside the towns and cities, and the remains of St. Peter were buried to the north of the circus, on the side of the Vatican hill.

Nearly 250 years later, Rome and Christianity united under the first Christian Emperor Constantine the Great. As well as ordering the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem where it is believed Jesus was crucified, and the construction of the first St Peter’s Basilica on the site of Peter’s remains, Constantine also built a new imperial residence in Byzantium and renamed the city after himself.. Constantinople. It was to become the capital of the Empire for over a thousand years, and today we know it as Istanbul.

Maderno's façade of St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

The façade of St. Peter’s Basilica designed by Carlo Maderno, appointed chief architect by Pope Paul V in 1602 to complete the designs and work of the new St. Peter’s Basilica started by Pope Julius II in the 16th century

We’d read the queues to get into St Peter’s Basilica quickly go from a few minutes to an hour or more, so we saved the square for later and made straight for the entrance. 15 minutes later we were standing in the amazing façade where we also picked up an audioguide.

Façade of St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

Inside the very impressive Façade of St. Peter’s Basilica. It was built specifically to allow the Pope to address the congregation in St. Peter’s Square from a window above the main entrance archway. The doors into St. Peter’s Basilica are all different

After listening to the enthusiastic audio introduction, we stepped inside what is regarded as the greatest building of its age..

Looking down the nave of St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

Looking down the nave of St. Peter’s Basilica, the most important church in Catholicism

Wow. Our first impressions were every definition and application of splendid – gold and white, marble everywhere, and everything in amazing condition, especially considering its age and the number of visitors it receives. The building itself is a masterwork, both inside and out, and is similarly adorned with priceless works of art in celebration of the faith. Specifically, there were 3 main works we were keen to see up close. The first, Michelangelo’s Pietà..

Michelangelo's Pieta, St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

Like the museums of the Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica contains some of the world’s most acclaimed art such as Michelangelo’s Pietà

Statue of St. Peter, St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

The second major work of art is this bronze statue of Saint Peter holding the keys of heaven by Arnolfo di Cambio

The foot of the statue of St. Peter, St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

.. apparently, rubbing or kissing the feett of St. Peter will curry favour and assist your entry into Heaven, but you’ll have to hurry – there’s not much left of them!

Bernini's bronze baldachin, St Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

Finally, the 30m (98ft) bronze baldachin or canopy designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini sits over the high altar and the location of St. Peter’s remains. It is believed to be the largest piece of bronze work in the world

As the basilica started to fill up with coach parties and tour groups, we headed down the steps at the foot of the giant statue of St. Andrew into the peaceful grotto below. In this solemn space where 91 previous pontiffs rest in peace, we also saw some of the foundations of the original Constantine basilica. The remains of St. Peter himself are in a separate tomb below this one which it is possible to visit but needs to be booked well in advance.

The exit of the catacombs set us neatly at the entrance to the ~500 steps to climb the famous dome atop St. Peter’s Basilica. The first 170 or so are optional as there’s a lift that gets you to the roof, but we opted for the stairs all the way. After the roof, we entered the base of the dome and weren’t expecting the view inside St Peter’s..

Dome gallery, St Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

Entering the base of the dome was an unexpected treat as we thought we’d just get to see it from the floor or to see the outside from the roof

Dome of St Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

The incredibly detailed dome of St Peter’s is also the tallest dome in the world. That fact surprised us as it didn’t feel as tall to us compared to standing on the floor in Haghia Sophia in Istanbul

On exiting the dome we thought we’d just get a view of the square from the roof, but there was more! The stairs started up between the dome’s walls and quickly gained a slant..

Climbing St Peters Steps, Vatican City

The further we ascended, the more the walls curved and leaned with the shape of the dome. And yes, I am standing upright!

Of the changes to the plans for St. Peter’s Basilica that occurred during the 120 years it took to complete, the giant dome influenced by both the Pantheon and the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower in Florence remained true to Donato Bramante’s initial vision. And the view is certainly worth the climb as you get to stand on the very top!

View of St. Peter's Square from the top of the dome, St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

The view from the top of St. Peter’s Basilica of the roof and St Peter’s Square is easily worth the climb – wow!

After taking far too many photos of the Vatican from the 360° viewpoint of the dome, we descended back to the roof where we found a gift shop, a Vatican post box and a small cafe, so we stopped for a quick coffee while writing out some postcards for friends and family back home – posted from the roof of the most important church in all of Christendom!

The dome of St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica as viewed from the roof – we were just up there!

Posting on the roof of St Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

Us sending postcards from the roof of St. Peter’s Basilica!

From the Spanish Steps to Piazza Navona, a walk through historic Rome

Our walking tour through the historic centre of Rome took in history from ancient times through the 17th century Baroque and up to the 20th century. Many of the stops we’d heard of or seen in films and I was surprised to find how close together everything is – the whole walk was only about 2.5km (1.5 miles).

The Spanish StepsThe Spanish Steps and ‘Fountain of the Old Boat’ at their foot

Our first stop was at the Spanish Steps. In Italian they’re called Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti which refers to the church at the top, the English name comes from the Spanish Embassy which is at the bottom. The shops around here make up one of the most exclusive shopping areas of Rome and we spotted lots of designer label shops nearby. There are 135 steps linking the Piazza di Spagna (Spanish Plaza) with the Church of Trinità dei Monti, apparently in the summer they are crowded with people but not many were in evidence at 9am on a rainy morning in February.

View from the Spanish StepsView from the top of The Spanish Steps, pretty good even on a grey and rainy day

At the foot of the Spanish Steps is the house where John Keats lived and died, and just a few doors further along is the former home of Giorgio de Chirico. We’d never heard of the 20th century Italian artist but his paintings looked interesting so we booked ourselves in for a tour of the House-Museum.

Giorgio de Chirico House MuseumGiorgio de Chirico House Museum (clockwise from top left): all of the furnishings are original; De Chirico began making sculptures late in his career; ‘Oedipus and the Sphinx’

De Chirico described his art as Metaphysical. His work reminded us of Salvador Dali – classical subjects, lots of paintings of his wife, other-worldly protagonists – and, in fact, Dali cited De Chirico as an influence. Judging from the description of him by our guide it sounds as if his ego and eccentricities were similar to the Spaniard too.

Giorgio de Chirico's studioUpstairs was the artist’s studio including his easel with five or six lucky charms hanging from the back of it

If you’ve seen Federico Fellini’s 1960 film ‘La Dolce Vita’ you’ll probably remember the scene in which Anita Ekberg goes for a swim in the Trevi Fountain. Sadly, the fountain is currently undergoing major restoration works so we didn’t see it in all its glory but we could appreciate its size – it must occupy about 75% of the square that it’s built in. The only plus point of visiting during the restoration is that the authorities have set up a walkway for tourists over the basin which is closer than you can usually get to the statues – without going for a swim…

Trevi FountainAnita Ekberg in ‘La Dolce Vita’ [source: The Times]; and us, similarly soaked but considerably less glamorous!

Legend has it that if you throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain you are certain to return to Rome. A small pool has been set up in front of the drained fountain basin to allow tourists to continue the practice. It’s so popular that tens of thousands of euros are collected every year and subsidise a supermarket for Rome’s needy.

Throwing a coin into the Trevi FountainAndrew ensuring that he will return to Rome

Just around the corner from the Trevi Fountain, but with far fewer tourists, we sheltered under the glass roof of Galleria Sciarra to eat our sandwiches. It was built in the late 1880s and was intended as a shopping centre although later it became the headquarters of a magazine and nowadays, amongst other things, houses an Anti-Corruption Agency. The walls of the courtyard were painted by Giuseppe Cellini in the Art Nouveau style.

Galleria SciarraThe beautiful Art Nouveau decoration in Galleria Sciarra represents twelve stages in a woman’s life on one row and twelve virtues of an ideal woman on the other

Moving on from there we continued through narrow cobbled streets and piazzas noticing that Romans seem to be obsessed with putting tall pointy things in the centre of their squares, it seems that practically every open space has an obelisk or column of some description.

Rome's columns and obelisksLeft to right: The Sallustiano obelisk at the top of the Spanish Steps is an ancient Roman copy of an Egyptian obelisk; the Column of the Immaculate in Piazza Mignanelli; the 40m high Column of Marcus Aurelius commemorates the emperor’s victories in war; Bernini’s ‘Elephant and Obelisk’ behind the Pantheon reminded us of the one in Catania’s Piazza Duomo

On our way to the next stop we passed the remains of the Temple of Hadrian, only one wall and 11 columns of the 15 which would have lined that side survive. Each column is 15m high and it is still an impressive sight. The building that it is now part of was holding a Poetry Slam competition on the day that we passed.

Temple of HadrianThe remaining wall of the Temple of Hadrian

Other than the De Chirico Museum, the main ‘sight’ on the tour was the Pantheon which is one of the best preserved of all the Ancient Roman buildings. It was originally built in round 26BC by Marcus Agrippa but had to be reconstructed twice (following the original design) due to fire. The current structure dates from 126AD.

The PantheonThe Pantheon’s builder, Marcus Agrippa is commemorated in the inscription on the portico

The structure is essentially a cylinder topped by a dome and fronted by a rectangular portico. Nearly 2000 years after it was built it is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome – we didn’t even know that concrete existed in Roman times! It has a diameter of 43.4m and rather pleasingly, for me at least, the height of the dome is also 43.4m which means that a sphere would fit neatly inside as demonstrated by this diagram which I found during my research.

Sphere inside the PantheonCross-section of the Pantheon showing its symmetry [source: pixshark]

At the top of the dome is a round opening called the oculus which is part of the reason that it could be built so wide. It was pretty cool to see the rain coming down through the hole and it was the only time during the day when we were even slightly glad that it was raining. The floor is designed to drain in the centre but even so a large section was cordoned off to prevent slippages.

Us inside the PantheonUs inside the Pantheon

The Pantheon was converted into a church in the 7th century which accounts for its good state of preservation. The sides of the cylindrical walls contain a number of small chapels and some tombs including two of Italy’s kings and the artist Raphael.

Interior of the PantheonInterior of the Pantheon (clockwise from left): Tomb of King Vittorio Emanuele II; wet floor; the main altar

Our final stop was just two blocks away through the winding streets, Piazza Navona. A long, narrow plaza, it was formerly the site of a stadium. Along one side is a very grand church, Sant’Agnese in Agone, and it contains three fountains, obviously the central one has an obelisk!

Piazza NavonaPiazza Navona

Unfortunately, the rain which plagued our stay in Naples seems to have followed us to Rome, initially at least. We comforted ourselves by taking hot chocolate breaks to warm us through and get some feeling back in our hands.