City trip Rome
A capital of culture
Rome is a city of culture: the Vittorio Emanuele memorial, the Trajanus markets and the Jewish ghetto, the Spanish Stairs, Circus Maximus, the Colosseum, the Forum Romanum and of course the Vatican. To relax, walk along the Tiber river or visit the park Villa Borghese.
Travelogue & photos: Johan Siegers
Rome, Roma in Italian, is a cosmopolitan city with 3.8 million inhabitants. A city of culture, capital of Italy and seat of the Vatican. It lies on the river Tevere (Tiber), on seven hills.
Since it became Italy's capital in 1870, Rome has grown rapidly in size. This has caused problems because of the many archeological sites: try and dig a tunnel for a subway when there are valuable archeological finds everywhere in the ground.
I am at Leonardo da Vinci Airport in Fiumicino and am desperately looking for the logo of the Italian railways (ƒ), when I suddenly realize that the railway station probably is in a different building.
Outside the heat gets me. In August it's 30 degrees Centigrade in Rome. Cabs offer their services, but I want to take the train. On the other side of the road I notice the Italian Railways logo.
The train to Termini in downtown Rome takes almost 40 minutes to get there. Not because of the distance, but because it doesn't pick up speed on the way, as if it will stop again any minute.
Rome is huge city, but the historical center is relatively small. It's roughly between the Tevere (Tiber) river, Villa Borghese, Termini train station and the Forum Romanum.
This is convenient, because it means that everything is at walking distance. The Vatican is on the other side of the Tevere.
Before exploring the city I have a pizza slice in a snackbar. There are lots of these small eating places in Rome, where you can have a sandwich, a slice of pizza and sometimes also spaghetti, eat in or take out. And this for only a few euros.
On the Piazza della Republica I see the first big fountain. The four nude nymphs caused a scandal when the fountain was unveiled in 1901. Each of the nymphs rests on some kind of water animal: a seahorse, a seasnake, a swan and a weird frill-necked lizard.
The Basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli, designed by Michelangelo, sits on this square.
From the outside it's not all that impressive, because the front has been kept simple. It looks as if the entrance was hewn from a rock. Once inside, the basilica turns out to be very large and covered in colored marble. The walls and ceiling have paintings on them and the floor is covered with mosaics.
Vittorio Emanuele II Memorial
Nicknames: "the bridal cake" and "the typewriter"
The Vittorio Emanuele Memorial on the Piazza Venezia is dedicated to King Vittorio Emanuele II. This building is clearly newer than other historical buildings in Rome. It was finished in 1911.
Everything about this memorial is gigantic. Built with white marble it has nicknames like "the bridal cake" and "the typewriter." In front of the building is a bronze horse on a pedestal with a lenght of 12 meters. From the upper galeries of the memorial you can see the Colosseum. On the other side are Trajanus' Markets, with a few fora.
Just around the corner from the monument is Caesar's Forum. Julius Caesar built the first imperial forum in Rome. It cost him a fortune to buy the land and demolish the houses.
In the temple were statues of Caesar as well as Cleopatra and Venus. Only a stage and three columns remain of the temple. The forum itself once was surrounded by a double row of columns, but a fire destroyed most of it. The forum is not open to the public, but can be seen from the street.
Trajanus' Markets and the Jewish ghetto
Everything was for sale here: silk, spices, fish and fruit
The Marcati Traianei (Trajanus' Markets) were a complex of stores and offices in the second century. Everything was for sale here: silk, spices, fish and fruit.
The markets and the adjoining Forum Augusta and Forum di Nerva used to form one large complex with the Forum Romanum on the other side of the road. Mussolini had a road constructed on top of these ancient cultural treasures, in order to have his army march there for his own glory (the Via dell'Impero, now Via dei Fori Imperiali).
When I try to walk around the whole complex, I end up in the former Jewish ghetto.
During the Roman Empire Jews were highly respected for their financial and medical talents.
Starting in 1556 Jews were forced to live in a walled-in area in Rome, as decreed by Pope Paul IV. This was the beginning of a period of intolerance toward Jews that lasted until mid-nineteenth century and started again in the Second World War.
Of the ghetto itself only ruins remain. But there still is a Jewish neighborhood where you can have an excellent kosher meal.
Wandering through Rome I all of a sudden come upon wide stairs that are incredibly crowded. At first I think that people are waiting to see a parade, but soon enough I understand that these are the famous Spanish Stairs, a popular meeting place for young people.
I walked by the Trevi Fountain in the daytime and now I come back at night to see the way the fountain is illuminated. It's a disappointment. I expected that this famous fountain would be in floodlights, but the illumination is minimal.
At 9 PM the streets are as busy as in the daytime. This is the time when most people go out for dinner in Rome.
A walk along the Tevere
In the middle of the river is a small island
The Tevere (Tiber) winds through Rome. It's great to take a walk along its banks. The foot path is mostly in the shade, which is pleasant when it's hot. In some places you can approach the river at close distance.
In the middle of the river is Tiber island, a small island with a few houses, a hospital and a church.
Rome is noisy because of all the traffic, but this part is almost like a village. From the other side of the river it's clearly visible that the island causes a little rapid.
The horse racing stadium had 300,000 seats
Circus Maximus was a racing track for horse races, but it was also used for athletic competition. It had 300,000 seats and was famous in Roman times. It was built in the 6th century BC in the Tarquins era. It was later rebuilt by Julius Caesar, because Circus Maximus burnt down twice. The stands collapsed at least on two occasions, causing several fatalities. Now only grass grows there.
To the left is the Palatium (Palatine). It is named after the hill on which it was built: Palatinus. It used to be Alexander Severus' Imperial Palace. The palace had a view, on the other side, of the home of the Vestal Virgins. According to legend a she-wolf nurtured Romulus and Remus on this hill.
The houses bordering on the Palatium are old and delapidated. Still, their worn terra cotta is picturesque. The only parts that seem to have been maintained over the years are the rainwater pipes. They are painted a fresh yellow.
In only one day, hundreds of gladiators died here
The Colosseum is the largest amphitheatre in Rome. Emperor Vespasiunus started building it, it was dedicated in the year 80 by Emperor Titus and later finished by Emperor Domitianus.
The Colosseum was Rome's first permanent amphitheatre. It belongs to the most important architectural landmarks of ancient Rome, both because of its size and because of its allure. It has the shape of a large ellips, 188 x 156 meters, and had 50,000 seats around an ellips-shaped arena. Beneath the sand-covered wooden arena floor was a system of corridors and rooms for wild animals, gladiators and everything else they needed for a spectacular show. The corridors, which lead to the arena, are shaped by over 80 walls.
Between the inner and outer walls where corridors on every level. They are decorated with three layers of arches. The stands were adjacent to the inner wall and could be covered if necessary. The building is a construction of concrete, large stones and masonry. It is 48.5 meters high, roughly the heighth of a modern 15 stories apartment building.
In the arena were fights between gladiators and between gladiators and (wild) animals. They were bloody fights. It was not an exception that in one day a thousand lions, ten elephants and hundreds of gladiators would die. The gladiator fights were held until the year 404, fights with wild animals until 523, when they were outlawed.
Outside the Colosseum are "real" Romans who try to convince tourists to pose with them for a picture. They often are successful. Meanwhile they also seem to be hot in the sun.
The ancient commercial, political and religious center of Rome
The Forum was the commercial, political and religious center of ancient Rome. It lies scattered in the valley between the Capitol and Palatine hills.
The Forum was built over a period of 900 years and comprises architectural styles from the time of Julius Caesar, Augustus, Traianus, Nerva and Vespucianus. In its heyday it must have been very crowded here. When the Roman Empire started to fall apart, the Forum was ever less maintained and eventually fell to ruins.
On the east side is the House of the Vestal Virgins. These virgins were universally respected. They were selected from nobel families between their sixth and tenth years. Then they were trained for ten years. In the next ten years their most important task was to keep the sacred fire burning in the House of Vesta. During the last ten years of their thirty years of service they trained new virgins. After that they were free to leave the House and get married. The Vestal Virgins had to take an oath of chastity. If they broke their oath, they were buried alive.
Above the Vesta House is the Palatine. This Palace of Alexander Severus is open to the public.
The Forum also housed the Senate, where Julius Caesar was assassinated. His ashes rest in the Forum.
To the Romans, Rome was the center of the world. To be more precise: the milestone Milliarium Aureum on the Via Appia was the center. Think of the expression "All roads lead to Rome.". That once was true. From Rome a network of roads spread all over the known world. All road signs indicated the distance to Rome
Once you're at the top, there's a great view of Rome
To visit Rome without seeing the St. Peter is of course impossible. And it's not only fun to see where the pope gives his annual "urbi et orbi" blessing, the building itself is really worth a visit.
I take the subway to St. Peter. The Metropolitana (subway company) is helpful in marking Ottavanio station as S. Pietro. When I reach St. Peter Square I hear an American say: "I'm a little disappointed, I thought it was bigger." He hasn't even entered the square and hasn't seen the inside of the basilica. Well, in America apparently everything is bigger.
In my opinion it really is the mother of all churches and cathedrals. It's grander, more impressive and more decorated than any cathedral I've ever seen before. The building is decorated with meters high statues. Immediately upon entering one is overwhelmed by its size.
On the floor the sizes of other basilicas are indicated. This stresses the size of the St. Peter. You can go up to the cupola. I take the elevator for the first part. It takes me to the mosaics above the text "callorum." From here there are 300 steps to a panorama spot.
It starts with a regular spiral staircase. Half-way the walls become slanted, which looks weird. The last part has a piece of rope as a handrail.
The diameter has meanwhile shrunk to a little over a meter. At the top the view is stunning. We can see most of Rome, including the Vatican.
Back downstairs I just have enough time to explore the basement of the Vatican. The dead popes are buried here.
Just around the corner is the Vatican museum. I get there around 9 AM. Bad timing: there's a line all the way down the block.
Inside, the herd is lead through endless corridors with paintings on both sides.
I want to see the Sixtine chapel and try to walk fast. This is hard because of groups of visitors who stand in the middle of the corridor, admiring the paintings. As an introduction to the Sixtine Chapel you pass by other painted walls and ceilings that are so beautiful that I can't imagine that the Sixtine Chapel could be even more impressive.
But it is. After the last restoration the colors are so clear that the Italians call it the "Benneton Michelangelo". Originally the ceiling was simply painted as a starry sky. Michelangelo changed that drastically.
Many images have been painted in a kind of 3D: the perspective of the painted columns is right and the painted figures also throw shadows on the background.
Because of this you have to look to find out whether the images are just painted or are statues which have been painted.
There is much more to see in the museum, from statues to paintings, from utensils to religious ceremonial objects.
Many statues, fountains and places to sit down
After crowded Rome it's wonderful to relax in the quiet park of Villa Borghese. On the map the old city wall is indicated and I decide to walk via the city wall to the park.
But the wall is not everywhere and soon enough I lose my way. When I take a look at the map, an old man approaches me: "I zpeakah Englis." He advises me to take the bus.
When I'm on the bus, it turns out that I can't buy a ticket. The driver is enclosed behind a glass wall. Oh well, I'll go without a ticket.
When I see a sign "Villa Borghese," I get off the bus at the next stop. And I am in front of the entrance of the park. The bus turns into the park: there are bus stops throughout Villa Borghese.
At first I don't know where to go and so I wander along fountains, a kind of athletics course and statues. It becomes clear to me that "villa" is Italian for park. It does not refer to a building.
The zoo is at the other end of the park, so while walking to it, I see most of the park. The entrance fee to the zoo is only 8 euro. The zoo itself is spacy, but clearly still in the process of improving animal habitats. Some animals already have surroundings that are adapted to their natural habitats, but others are still in cages.
The zoo has several picnic spots and a playground for kids. They are used well. The zoo is an outing for many Italians.
There are other parks attached to Villa Borghese. Sometimes you don't even notice getting from one to the other, but sometimes the parks are fenced in by huge walls. They are just as beautiful as Borghese and also have statues, foutains and places to sit down.
It's so hot in August that most people just want to sit in the shade. For me it's the perfect place to wait until it's time to take the train to the airport.