We chose to go to Rome at the very last minute - within the span of 10 days, we decided to go, booked our flight/hotel and hopped on a plane. If we had actually taken the time to do a little research, we would have learned that Rome in August is:
1. insanely hot (it was roughly 35 degrees Celcius everyday, with another 8-10 degrees extra in humidity); and
2. mainly closed down as many Romans take their holidays during this month.
But, we made the most of the situation, had backup plans in case any restaurant/attraction was closed, drank gallons of water and ended up having a wonderful trip.
Simply put, Rome is stunning! Everywhere you look, there's something old, historical and beautiful. And I'm not even going to start on the food right now - that's for future posts! We saw so many memorable things that it's hard to narrow it down, but because this is a blog post, not a book, I tried my best to pick some of my favourites to show you. (Thank goodness for our brand new Nikon D3200, which we bought two days before the trip - it actually makes our photos soooo much better!)
Here are the Top 10 (non-food) things I saw in Rome (in no particular order):
Inside the dome of St. Peter's Basilica
Located within Vatican City, Saint Peter's Basilica has the largest interior of any Christian church in the world and is regarded as one of the holiest Catholic sites. For me, this basilica is memorable in a few ways - it was the shortest line-up we had (it took less than five minutes to get in both times we went!), it was the one place that enforced the "cover your shoulders" rule, and it was the place where I almost passed out from heat stroke (but that's a story for another day!)
We took a lift up to the dome level and got to walk along inside to see the ceiling up close. I think the photo speaks for itself.
The Vatican Museum exit staircase
The Vatican Museums display works from the huge collection built up by the Roman Catholic Church throughout the centuries, including some of the most renowned classical sculptures and important masterpieces of Renaissance art.
Yes, the works of art are impressive, and the Sistine Chapel is included in the entry fee to the Museums, but one of the sites that will stay with me forever? The stairs to the exit! Designed by Giuseppe Momo in 1932, the broad steps are somewhere between a ramp and a staircase and actually consist of two separate helixes, one leading up and the other leading down, that twist together in a double helix formation.
This has become my favourite staircase in the whole world. Yes, it's very wide and quite steep...and perfectly designed. Just take a look at this photo - isn't this a beautiful site?
Under the Colosseum
The Colosseum is an oval amphitheatre (I always mistakenly thought it was round) in the centre of Rome, the largest ever built in the Roman Empire (it was capable of seating 50,000 spectators). If you've seen the movie Gladiator, then you have a pretty good idea of what the Colosseum may have looked like back in the day when it was used for gladiatorial contests and public spectacles such as mock sea battles, animal hunts, executions and re-enactments of famous battles.
Seeing the Colosseum in person was a little weird - I mean, this was an iconic image and to stand in front of it...well, I was kind of in awe. Meanwhile, Paul was surprised how much smaller it was in real life. And to make our visit even cooler? How about getting to go underneath the Colosseum to see where the gladiators and animals were kept before entering the arena? The tour that we signed up for (which was only 8 Euro on top of the price of admission) got us into both the underground area and the upper tier of the Colosseum, areas which are generally closed to the public. Going underground was cool enough, but the views from the top were spectacular!
Basilica di San Clemente al Laterano
The Basilica of Saint Clement is a Roman Catholic minor basilica dedicated to Pope Clement I. At first, this seemed like many of the other churches and basilicas we saw while in Rome (and trust me, there are A LOT of churches and basilicas in Rome!), but this one has a very neat attraction.
When you first enter the basilica, you're in the current basilica, which was built just before 1100 AD. After paying a small "donation" fee, you head downstairs, where you end up in another basilica (now mainly in ruins) that was built in the 4th century. Going down even more stairs, you end up in a 1st century Roman home that served as a church and also a "mithraeum" - a place of worship, always a cave or cavern, for the followers of the mystery religion of Mithraism. And underneath THAT you could hear the fast-flowing water from an underground stream.
Although this wasn't particularly pretty (and the smell was pretty stale), to be standing inside something built in the 4th century and peer at a 1st century place of worship - that was very, very cool.
The Knights of Malta Priory keyhole
High on the Aventine Hill sits the peaceful Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta. The Piazza leads to a famous and fascinating broad wooden door known affectionately by Romans as the "hole of Rome". Since it isn't that close to any of the major tourist attractions, this piazza is very quiet. When we arrived, there were only two other people in the piazza.
This spot is a little magical, in an almost secretive way. You can't actually go into the Knights of Malta Priory, but it's still worth the trip. If you go up to the big door and peer through the tiny keyhole, you get to see something pretty special.
Through the keyhole, through a perfectly aligned tunnel of hedges, you get a picture perfect view of the dome of St. Peter's Basilica.
The only thing is that it's nearly impossible to get a good shot of everything together - keyhole, hedges and St. Peter's. Paul tried a dozen times and only came out with one good photo.
The Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel is famous for its architecture and of course, its decorations. Frescoed throughout by Renaissance artists including Michelangelo and Botticelli, the Chapel is most well-known for Michelangelo's ceiling and The Last Judgement (which takes up the entire wall behind the alter).
After seeing images of this famous ceiling in books, on TV and in movies, I didn't think I would be so moved to actually be in the Sistine Chapel. But there I was, staring straight up, trying to take in every detail. We lucked out because after we entered, Paul and I somehow ended up on the far side of the room and found seats (there are a small number of benches along one wall of the Chapel) so we were able to sit and just stare at the ceiling. Another unexpected bonus was that the guards who were ushering people in and out didn't really pay much attention to the people sitting on the benches so we could stay as long as we wanted.
You're not allowed to take photos inside the Sistine Chapel - hence no image to share.
Castel Sant'Angelo at night
The Mausoleum of Hadrian, usually known as the Castel Sant'Angelo (Castle of the Holy Angel), is a towering round building. Initially commissioned by the Roman Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for him and his family, the building was later used by the popes as a fortress and castle, and is now a museum. One interesting feature of this Castle is its Passetto di Borgo, an elevated passage that links it with Vatican City. Approximately 800 m long, the Passetto was erected in 1277 by Pope Nicholas III and has been used on several occasions as an escape route for Popes in danger.
We had planned on going to see Castel Sant'Angelo during the day, but while we were at another museum, Paul picked up a flyer that advertised Notti d'estate a Castel Sant'Angelo (Summer Nights in Castel Sant'Angel) - the castle was open to the public July 6 to September 9, 2012 from 8:30pm to 1:30am. Along with access to the regular parts of the museum, free guided tours were given to areas closed to the public, which included the famous Passetto di Borgo, underground prisons and Pope Clement VII’s bathroom
We took one of the English tours and my favourite part was walking along the Passetto in near darkness, under the starry Roman sky.
The Galleria Borghese houses a substantial part of the Borghese collection of paintings, sculpture and antiquities, begun by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the nephew of Pope Paul V.
This gallery is even tougher with their "no photo" rules - you have to coat-check all bags and cameras. But the art in this collection is totally worth the trouble. My favourite pieces were definitely the stunning Lady with Unicorn painting by Raphael and the unbelievably realistic statue, the Rape of Proserpina by Bernini.
The Pantheon oculus
Commissioned as a temple to the gods of Ancient Rome, and rebuilt in about 126 AD, the Pantheon is circular with a portico of large granite Corinthian columns. Almost 2,000 years after it was built, the Pantheon's dome is still the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome. One of the best-preserved of all Roman buildings, the Pantheon has been in continuous use throughout its history and is currently used as a church.
I can't explain why, but I love this ceiling and its oculus (central opening). Standing inside the Pantheon, looking up at the hole in the ceiling made me very happy to be in Rome.
For those of you wondering (like I did) - the Pantheon's oculus is open all the time. When it rains, the water comes in through the oculus, hits the floor and drains away in several well-hidden holes built into the floor.
Empty Spanish Steps
The Spanish Steps climb a steep slope between the Piazza di Spagna at the base and Piazza Trinità dei Monti, dominated by the Trinità dei Monti church at the top. This stairway of 138 steps is the widest staircase in Europe and a famous people-watcher spot..
Our hotel was about a five minute walk from the Steps so we passed them several times during our stay. Early one morning, on our way to the Galleria Borghese, we found the Spanish Steps completely empty. Empty!
So there you have it, some of my favourite sites in Rome.
Oh, an honourable mention goes out to the 2,500 drinking fountains throughout Rome. Considering the heat and how expensive bottled water was, these free fountains were a welcome site. There was one morning when I was practically near dehydration when all I wanted to see was a drinking fountain. When we finally walked by one on a side street after two hours in a gallery and one hour of walking, I practically shouted "Fountain!" at Paul and veered down the street without waiting to see if he followed. Free, flowing cold water - what a lovely site!
What about you? Any of these sites make you want to take your own trip to Rome? Or have you already been and totally agree/disagree with me? Leave me a comment and let me know what you think!