I first explored Rome with family back in 1997, and immediately fell in love. I returned two years later to explore with friends, while on a much longer and larger Contiki tour of Italy. When I visited the third time, it was 2012, and I was alone.
It had been seven years since I’d been back. I hopped on a flight and decided to spend a mere four days wandering the streets of Rome, with nothing but a change of clothes and a notebook. Before that, it had been thirteen years since my last real visit to Italy.
I knew this most recent trip would be very different from the start. It would be the first time my other half would step foot in the country, his first introduction to my Italian family, and the first time my sisters and I had been to Italy together in over thirty years.
We flew with my niece (who slept most of the overnight flight, stretched out across three empty seats) and landed in the early afternoon. We had a car waiting to pick us up at Fiumicino Airport, which dropped her off with her parents (who had already been travelling around Italy for two weeks) and then made our way to our hotel.
The Pantheon Caesar Relais is an adorable boutique hotel overlooking the Largo di Torre Argentina. The room was chic and stylish, with its big round bed and artifacts built into the floor, but small and somewhat difficult to maneuver with it's limited space and sunken bedroom. The wrap around balcony was, by far, its best feature, providing unobstructed views of the ruins, the sunsets and the people below. The one stipulation my other half wanted in a hotel in Rome, was a balcony, which are somewhat difficult to find, especially in the area we were looking.
TIP: Rome is a very large city, with the most popular spots located in the center. If you're looking to stay within walking distance, look for accommodations within the grid of Piazza di Spagna to the north, Piazza Venezia to the south, Castel Sant'Angelo to the west and Termini Station to the east.
The ruins located in the Largo di Torre Argentina sit twenty feet below street level and are currently inaccessible to the public, other than one staircase which leads only to the cat sanctuary. Yes, that's right, a cat sanctuary among the ruins! In February 2019, it was announced that an extensive restoration of the site would begin, to add walkways, lighting and turn the current storeroom into a museum, but undoubtedly the current pandemic has pushed the 2021 deadline.
Located down the one accessible staircase, is the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary, where volunteers painstakingly care for dozens of cats living in the sanctuary, within the ruins and within the city. Visitors can enter and meet some of the friendly felines and, like we did, adopt them from afar. We intended to adopt one, but couldn't resist their adorable faces and adopted two - Yokohama and Joan Collins. No matter who you choose, all proceeds go to helping all the cats in the sanctuary (and beyond).
TIP: If adopting a cat is out of your price range, any donation is welcome. The sanctuary also produces an annual calendar which features some of their more popular and photogenic residents. A very worthy cause and a great gift for any animal lover.
Rome was experiencing an August heat wave, with temperatures in the 35-40 degree Celsius range (just like my last visit in 2012) but perhaps due to age, I felt it more this time around. It limited the amount of walking we could do and extended how tired we were on most nights, but explore we did.
We booked a private tour of the Colosseum and Palatine Hill through Guidaly, a Roman company that provides tours and guides by locals. This is especially important in such a tourist-heavy city, where many outside companies and guides are available. Choosing a local company and guide means the money stays in the country and you likely get better insight. Guidaly were wonderful to deal with and a company we highly recommend.
We customized our tour to include the Gladiator's entrance and the newly opened upper rings, but having just recently opened to the public, the upper tiers were closed again by the time we arrived and we were unable to access them. With the friendly and personable Maddelena as our guide, we did enter through the Gladiator's entrance that early morning and walk on the arena floor. She pointed out where the original structure ended, the first (and second) restoration began, and where the structure had been scavenged for iron (leaving gaping holes in the columns). The interior maze happened to be under restoration, having just set up a number of tents the week prior. It did lose some of the magic and majesty that I remembered from previous visits, but the history and beauty remained.
The Colosseum (and surroundings) is definitely one of those places you can return to again and again, and have a different experience every time. On my first visit to the Colosseum, I recall feeling physically sick, bombarded with feelings of death and tragedy that bleeds from its history, so much so that I refused to enter on my next two visits. This was my second time exploring the interior. Perhaps it was the artifacts on display or the restoration tents that kept my imagination firmly in reality, but this time, though the tragedy lingered, it was overshadowed by the architecture of the building itself. We had planned on returning and going down into the catacombs, but in the end weren't able to. Perhaps the nausea would have returned there.
Next, our guide escorted us to Palatine Hill and into the Roman Forum, where she flooded us with information and interesting facts. We were hopeful she would be our guide on our planned Vatican visit two days later, but were sadly disappointed. More about that below. We could have easily spent hours wandering through the ruins of the Forum, had it not been for the heat of the now early afternoon. We decided it was best to save the further exploration for a future visit, and headed off in search of delicious pizza for lunch.
Let's take a moment to talk about the pizza. Yes, Italy is famous for it's wood-oven, thin pizzas in a seemingly million variations, but what often is overlooked are the "by the slice" pizzas available on every corner in Rome. This is the pizza I was raised on. A thin and crispy crust spread over a large rectangular oven tray and coated with every topping you can think of, but remaining simple it it's execution. Our favourites were the simple olive oil based pizzas with oregano and potato slices. Absolutely delicious, especially followed by a gelato.
Oh the gelato. You have not tasted ice cream until you've tasted gelato in Rome. The flavours are authentic and pure, nothing muted or overpowering. It was so hot during our stay, we justified an ice cream (or three) a day. Who says breakfast gelato is wrong?
TIP: Rome is a walking city, or more accurately, a wandering city. Somehow, huge buildings and monuments hide within the structure of the cobbled streets. There is so much to discover around every corner. Due to the overwhelming heat, we hired taxis when we could, but ensured we walked as much as possible in the early morning and at night. You will miss out on the wonder and charm Rome has to offer if you don't.
The next day, after a continental breakfast of sweet pastries, toast, juice and coffee (delivered to our room), we started early and explored the famous spots on foot. First stop, Piazza Navona with it's beautiful Baroque fountains. The heat of the morning was so strong, we found ourselves forced to stand in the shade to capture photos, unable to withstand the sun. It was quiet and almost barren, the sound of the water loud but somehow relaxing. Photos of the piazza in its entirety, do not so it justice, missing out on the serene details like the detailed expressions carved into the faces on the fountains.
Next stop was the Roman Pantheon, with it's stunning interior, domed roof with center oculus and adjacent piazza. Unfortunately there were a lot more people visiting the interior of the Pantheon when we arrived, and with everyone looking up to the beautiful roof, few were looking where they were going. We headed towards the most famous fountain in Rome after that, with a stop to admire the unbelievable detail on the Marcus Aurelius Column.
My first time visiting the Trevi Fountain, I recall it being busy, but not overwhelming. The second time, we made a point to visit at night and it was practically empty. I sat on the edge and tossed a coin over my shoulder, vowing I would return. When I did, seven years later, I was shocked by how crowded the fountain and surrounding streets were. It was almost impossible to walk through the crowds of people or stand near the fountain without someone pushing you or obstructing your view. I managed to find a spot around the side to sit and observed. Whether standing from afar, or admiring the details in the faces, the musculature, or the faux windows, the fountain is simply stunning.
On this most recent visit, the crowds were just as intense, but this time, it was forbidden to sit on the edge, though some did try and were quickly reprimanded by security and their piercing whistles.
That night, we discovered our soon to be favourite restaurant in all of Rome. Through quick research of restaurants in the area, we stumbled upon Pancrazio. It’s rustic exterior and simple patio was not uncommon for the Campo dei Fiori area, but what is unique is it's history. Ristorante da Pancrazio was built atop the ancient Roman ruins. First opened as a tavern in 1922 by Pancrazio Macchioni, an attempt to expand the premises in the 1950s revealed several rooms from the first century Theatre of Pompeii, where Julius Caesar was murdered. The history may intrigue you to visit the first time, but you will return for the atmosphere and especially the food. We enjoyed a chilled bottle of rosé and feasted on the best cacio e pepe pasta we’ve ever had.
Hoping to avoid the large crowds and extend out time in the museums, we booked an early morning tour of the Sistine Chapel through Walks of Italy for the next morning. It sounded perfect; a small group to explore within the Vatican Museums before it is open to the public. We were horribly wrong. The early morning meeting point was with a small group, that merged with many other small groups, all of which stood in line for an hour before being herded into the side entrance. While we waited, our guide wanted us to wear headsets to hear her share facts on the Sistine Chapel, while looking at a laminated print. It was cold and impersonal.
After waiting for our tickets to be collected, our guide literally ran us through the Vatican Museums so we could sit in the Sistine Chapel in silence for (maybe) 10 minutes. After exiting the chapel, we walked through the museums again, but this time at our guide's personal pace, ignoring full rooms and beautiful décor to focus on a tapestry or artifact in another that she found interesting. It wasn’t a guided tour of the Vatican Museums, it was her personal preference tour and teaching class, one where she tested us and asked questions as if there was to be a quiz afterwards.
Having visited many times before, I refused to wear the headsets and focused on my surroundings. We broke off from the group where we could and took photos of the rooms and artifacts we were interested in, and slowly the rest of the group did the same. The Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's Basilica are all full of amazement and well worth the visit and the time to explore. Though you can't possibly see everything in one visit, it's best to explore on your own or book a guided tour with a local who will cater the experience to your interests. Unfortunately, this was my husband's first visit and it left such a sour taste in his mouth, he vowed it would be his last.
After the Vatican visit, we walked along Ponte Sant'Angelo. With it's looming angels with beautiful expressive faces, it is my favourite bridge in all of Rome. There is something special about the castle, sitting seemingly out of place with the grandeur of St. Peter's Basilica in the distance. The plan was to also enter Castel Sant'Angelo, but after the disappointment of the Vatican tour and with the heat weighing on us, we decided instead to go for lunch. We happened upon a small restaurant in the shadow of the Passeto di Borgo, whose menu changed daily, called Borghiciana Pastificio Artigianale. Nothing lifts your spirits like a delicious plate of homemade pasta. We happily strolled "lungo tevere" (along the river), enjoying the cool share as we headed home.
On the last day, we packed up our belongings, rented a car (a Fiat 500L) and made our way out of the city, heading towards my family village of Rocca San Giovanni, stopping along the way to visit the ruins of Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli. Rome is an eternal city that beckons your return, and that we did. After a week visiting family in the Abruzzo region, we returned for a few additional days. More on those days in a separate post.
Whether it be tossing a coin in the Trevi Fountain (or the desire to taste just one more gelato), all visitors create an open-ended bond with the city of Rome.