Rome has been one of those places that I have been dreaming about going to since I was a littler girl. I love Roman history and have studied Latin as well as the poetry of Catullus in my time, so my recent trip was more than simply ticking off one of the seven wonders of the world from my bucket list. But the Eternal City was very different to how I expected it to be. For one, I always connected Rome to its history as the centre of the ancient world, not as the thriving metropolitan capital of modern day Italy. As a consequence, I was quite taken aback by the business of the city, particularly its ruthless drivers and endless streams of cars. As a result, what I loved about Rome and what made it gain an eternal place in my heart was different to what I expected.
The thing I loved the most was not even technically in Rome. It was the Vatican City that made me fall in love with this little part of the world. A lot of people are put off from visiting the Vatican because of its endless lines and high ticket prices, but in my opinion it is well worth both the time and money. If you get there very early in the morning as I did, you’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll be able to get into St. Peter’s Basilica. The Basilica itself is utterly breathtaking. Now, I am an art lover, particularly of Renaissance style architecture, but I have never seen with my own eyes something so beautifully crafted, so entirely visually overwhelming, both on an architectural and artistic level, as the Basilica. It is only by comparing the crowds of visitors to their surroundings that you can grasp how vast the church is, as they are dwarfed by its towering arches and aisles lavishly decorated by marble, gilding and exquisitely carved sculptures. It is so beautiful that you catch yourself because it seems too detailed to be really crafted by human hands. I would have lied down on the cold, marble floor and gazed up at its high, painted ceiling for hours, if the Basilica staff had not been lurking around every corner.
Apart from the church itself, another part of the Vatican that I really enjoyed was going up to the top of St. Peter’s Dome, although the 300 narrow, uneven steps up were a little bit difficult. Not only do you get to see the interior of the dome in much more detail but you also get a wonderful view of the church below. I was really lucky as I went on a Sunday, so as I looked down at the beauty of the church below, I could hear the peaceful harmonies of the choirs who were singing during the Mass services. It was really beautiful to listen to their voices drift up to the Dome where I looked down from above. The exterior view from the top of the Dome is what really sells it though. On my trip, it was a glorious sunny day with a clear blue sky as far as the eye could see, so the whole expanse of Rome was laid before my feet in wonderful sunshine.
My second favourite site to the Vatican in Rome oddly was not the Colosseum, but its neighbouring site, the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. It was here that the Roman history that I have been reading over the years really came alive. When I was looking round this huge site of ruined temples, palaces, shops, and old parliamentary buildings, I could envisage what ancient Rome really looked like. The Roman Forum lies in the valley that is overlooked by Palatine Hill, so when you enter the site along Via Sacra, looking up at the Arch of Titus, and then descend into the valley away from the hustle and bustle surrounding the Colosseum, you do feel like you are being taken back in time. The site is oddly peacefully, even with throngs of tourists crowding Rome during the summer, which I think it’s why I was able to imagine Romans walking beside me as I retraced their steps. You have to have peace to let your mind wonder back to an earlier time, appreciating history is hard to do with the sound of traffic abusing your eardrums. I loved walking along the ancient streets in this site, visualising all the ruined buildings still intact around me, looking up to the curving slope that leads to the Temple of Saturn with its surviving columns, imaging that I was going to perform a morning offering to the god. The ruins on Palatine Hill itself, overlooking the valley, are also fascinating as you can really gage how large this cultural hub used to be. As you make your way up the steps, you can envisage the shops that would have been selling textiles, fruit and meat, overlooking the streets below. At the top is now a beautiful garden with an orange orchid, where you get wonderful views of both the valley below and the rest of the city, almost rivalling the views from St. Peter’s Dome. This site is what brought ancient Rome alive for me much more than its overshadowing neighbour the Colosseum, and nicely completed my trip to this ancient centre of the known world.
Another often neglected part of Rome which really made my trip special was exploring the winding streets of Trastevere, the neighbourhood on the west bank of the Tiber. There you will not only find endless narrow streets with little boutiques but also more trattoria than ristorante restaurants, which definitely does not mean a level down in the quality in the food. It is the other side of the river to the main sites such as the Colosseum, which not only meant cheaper food but also more authentic dishes than those found in close proximity to the main tourist sites. From my experience, the trattoria restaurants on this side of the river offer much more delicious and flavoursome delicacies for a lower price tag than the ristorante restaurants. Another striking difference is the gelato. Although most gelaterias in Rome make their own gelato themselves, the gelato in Trastevere is packed with much more flavour. If you’re in the neighbourhood, go to the Piazza di Santa Maria to Blue Ice Gelaleria. Although it looks more like a standard ice cream shop with its bright neon sign, they serve the most amazing gelato, with really berry pieces in their Berry gelato and actual coconut flakes in their Coconut gelato. Perfect after a day sightseeing in the hot sun!
Overall, exploring the nooks and crannies of the Eternal City was a wonderful experience, one that will stay with me forever. It truly is a city like no other, although it is often not what you expect it to be. I think a part of me will always want to wander back to those parts of Rome that really captured my imagination and heart. After all, all roads lead to Rome.
If you’re travelling to Rome this summer and want some tips, read Yaya’s Top 5 Tips for Visiting Rome.