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Rome – City of Emperors, God and la Dolce Vita…

RomeAlthough 21st century Rome is a living museum of centuries of history and culture, it is a modern city that is as much about the people who live here now as it is about those who lived here in the past.

So whether that’s the hip dude in his sharp suit and Armani sunglasses with his pretty amore in her Dolce e Gabbana outfit, staggering heels and toy dog tucked under her arm, or  the duo of elderly matrons with their wheelie shopping bags, gossiping on their way back from market, or a flock of nuns in their white habits stopping for refreshments at the local café, they all typify Roman life against a backdrop that seems straight out a movie set.

Of all European cities, Rome is the ‘one stop shop’ of the entire history of Western civilisation, a layer cake if you like, with each era added on alongside or on top of the previous one, and all in the space of a few square miles. The sheer amount of history and culture, from Emperors and God to incredible art, sculpture, and architecture would weigh down the communal mindset if we were anywhere but Italy, causing the locals to take themselves seriously and reverently.

But it doesn’t.

Instead, Rome is a city of fun and passion, light heartedness, in your face fashionistas and good living (la dolce vita to be sure). It’s a city of immense depth and beauty and significance, but it’s also a manageable city, a city you can easily explore on foot without losing yourself.

The periods butt up against each other good-naturedly, forming an architectural pattern that is reminiscent of a patchwork quilt created over a long lifetime: that piece of Imperial Roman Villa in the wall of that beautiful 15th Century palace, that pagan temple cut and adjusted to accommodate that Baroque church, and that gorgeous picture window and roof garden cut into the roof of a medieval tenement overlooking that fabulous landmark, all with shining gems scattered throughout, such as the Trevi fountain, the theatrical stage set that is the Piazza Navona, and the beautiful Pantheon.

In fact, absolutely everywhere you look there is something amazing, so plan on ambling between key points of interests so you don’t miss anything… that roof garden above your head… a fabulous fountain… cherubs carved into a street corner… an alter to the Virgin Mary tucked in a tiny archway… a view through a doorway into an oasis of a courtyard. And luckily some of the most amazing are all within a relatively small area, so getting your fill of incredible art and architecture is easily achieved just by strolling your way through a long weekend.

Piazza NavonaThe History of Rome

According to legend, the twins Romulus and Remus founded the City of Rome in 753 BC. The city was the cradle of Roman civilization, producing the most enduring empire in the known history of the world, and responsible for the spread of Greco-Roman culture that endures throughout much of the world to this day. Rome is also the home of the Catholic Church, and the State of the Vatican City, lying within the boundaries of Rome, is the smallest independent nation in the world at 44 hectares (108.7 acres), and has it’s own radio station, publishing house, newspaper, and postal service.

Spread across its seven hills, and buzzing with life and activity, 21st century Rome is thoroughly modern and cosmopolitan. As one of the few major European cities that escaped World War II relatively unscathed, central Rome remains essentially Renaissance and Baroque in character, through which you can catch glimpses of the other eras that have shaped it.

Etrusan Rome

Collections of artifacts from Rome’s earliest period of settlement from 800-500BC, including fabulous jewellery, can be seen in the Vatican Museum. Most famously, the bronze statue of the She-Wolf who legend tells as suckling Romulus and Remus after their evil uncle tried to drown them in the Tiber, can be seen in the Capitoline Museum, as well as in replica on signs and buildings throughout the city. The 16th century Villa Giulia in the Campo de’ Fiori area houses an amazing collection of Etruscan tomb artifacts, and the detail and craftsmanship of this artwork from 2,800 years ago will absolutely astonish you – you’ve never seen stuff so old looking so good!

Roman Republic 500-44BC

During the Republican period, Rome’s troops conquered the surrounding tribes and her skilled engineers developed the city itself to accommodate the increasing population. While most of what remains lies underground, like the Tomb of Scipios in the Caracalla district, you can also see remains above ground at the Area Sacra at the Largo di Torre Argentina, the square on the corner of the Campo de’ Fiori area at the top of Via Arenula.

The Ponte Fabricio, located at the edge of the Ghetto on the far eastern corner of the Campo de’ Fiori area, also dates from this era. This bridge was built to link Rome to the Isola Tiberina (Tiber Island), where the sick were sent in to quarantine. There is still a hospital, as well as a beautiful medieval church, St Bartolomeo all’Isola, on the island, and from here you can carry on across to medieval Trastevere, so it’s a great place to see the different layers of Rome all together, including modern Romans sunbathing and playing frisbee.

Imperial Rome

Caesar was assassinated a mere month after he became dictator in 44BC and so began a civil war that ended 17 years later with the formation of Imperial Rome, headed up by the first Emperor, Augustus.

By the 3rd century, the Roman Empire was immense, spreading from Britain in the north to Africa in the south, and this richness and diversity was reflected and celebrated in lavish buildings throughout Rome, as well as in the proliferation of goods and jewellery.

The Colosseum, Rome

The Colosseum, Rome

There remain relics of the period throughout the city, such as in the Jewish ghetto quarter where you can see the remains of the Porto of Octavia, but the sheer magnificence of the time of the Emperors is undoubtedly best conveyed by the Pantheon and the Colosseum.

Early Christian Rome

From the 1st century onwards, Jesus’ teachings of a religion based on ‘One God’ rather than ‘Many Gods’ spread slowly from the outskirts of the Roman Empire. At first Christians were persecuted, yet slowly the new religion gained in converts until it had permeated right to the top of Roman hierarchy by the 4th century, when the first Christian Pope was appointed as Head of State. There are many beautiful churches from the period, many of them converted Roman temples or built on the site of martyrs, such as that of St Cecilia in Trastevere. St Cecilia, patron saint of music (because she sang throughout the hours it took to kill her), was an aristocrat who was martyred here in AD230, and her house can still be seen beneath the gem-like church that was built in her memory in the 4th century.

Medieval Rome

As power shifted east from Rome to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) in the 4th century, Rome’s population plummeted to a few thousand inhabitants. Throughout the Middle Ages, the importance of the papacy kept the city alive, although violent conflicts and invasions throughout the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries took their toll, resulting in the papacy moving to Avignon in France in 1309. Regardless of the conflicts, many fine churches were built, including Rome’s only remaining Gothic church, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, near the Pantheon.

Renaissance and Baroque Rome

The Middle Ages saw a shift back towards wealth and power for Rome, but this time it centred on religion rather than political or armed force. The papacy inspired some of the finest artists and craftsmen to work for the glorification of God, leaving an amazing legacy, such as the Sistine Chapel and its frescoes, plus many other fabulous works by such giants as Michelangelo, Bernini, and Botticelli.

Unified Rome

The civil war in Rome in the 1820s centred on the fight to make Rome the capital of Italy and unify the country as a single entity. The rebels eventually succeeded in storming the city wall near Porta Pia, the Pope retreated and Rome was made the Italian capital. Italy’s first King, Victor Emmanuel, was crowned in 1861 and the Victor Emmanuel Monument was completed in 1911. Known rather insultingly as the ‘wedding cake’ or ‘typewriter’, this austere white marble building is one of modern central Rome’s landmarks – there seems to be no point in the City where you can’t spot one or both of the white winged charioteers on top of its two columns, which is great for orientating yourself.

Getting there

There are daily flights to Rome from all the major UK airports: check out Air Alitalia and BA for direct flights; the flight takes about 2.5 hours and you can expect to pay about £150 return. Once you arrive, you can take the train into the centre of the city (€11 euros; takes nearly an hour), which is a great way to get the feel of Rome, although the bustle and confusion of the main train station once you arrive can be off-putting, especially if you don’t speak Italian.

A taxi from the airport to the city centre will cost about €50, with extra charges for lots of luggage and Sunday pick ups, although it does have the advantage of taking you door-to-door and can actually be the cheaper option if there is more than one of you.

If you book in advance you can arrive in style in a Mercedes, as well as it often being a little bit cheaper than an ad hoc taxi – try U.A.R.A. (www.limousineuara.com) or Nando Cese (he speaks decent English) at Limousine Service (Italy +347 8200487).

Tips and recommendations

It’s a friendly place, Rome. The people smile a lot and most will go out of their way to help you. It’s generally clean and extremely civilised, with few of the usual beggars or menacing gangs of youths you can come across in the centres of other cities. The roads are fast and furious, for sure, and the average Italian driver does seem to have a death wish on first glance, but even this is more part of the bravado of the Roman psyche than any desire to do you real harm (even the police ride around on their bikes with their arms in the air!). Act as confidently as they do, swagger your way across the road when you have every right to, and all will be well.

The bus service is okay and once you’re familiar with where you are staying it can be a great way to get ‘home’ if you are fed up with walking at the end of the day, although they can be crowded and when they arrive can be more down to personal whim than the timetable! The metro system is limited and somewhat chaotic, as ancient ruins keep getting unearthed every time the city tries to build an extension!

Many guides include a bus and metro map, which is helpful, and bus and subway tickets are interchangeable. These can be purchased at tobacco shops (tabacchis), news stands, and some bars. Ticket vending machines are also located in stations, on street corners, and at major bus stops. Keep an eye out for the ‘ATAC’ logo. Tickets cost €1 and are valid for either one Metro ride or unlimited bus travel within 75 minutes of validation. A Biglietto Integrato Giornaliero (BIG) ticket allows for unlimited bus or train travel within one day and costs €4. A Biglietto Turistico Integrato (BTI, or a three-day tourist ticket) costs €11.

Taxis are everywhere and very convenient, but will cost you more – there’s a minimum charge of €2.50 during the day and roughly €5 after 10pm, plus a 10% tip as standard.

At most of the major attractions you will also find horse-drawn carriages (carrozzelle) patiently waiting. These will take you from site to site, or can be hired for an hour, half days, or full days. They carry up to five people and the price can be negotiable, especially for longer trips, but do make sure you understand whether it is per person, per hour or for the full trip before moving off.

You can also hire scooters if you want to pretend you’re starring in ‘Roman Holiday’! They, and the helmets, can be hired by the day, and they can be delivered to wherever you want – try www.scooterhire.it for further details.

However, if you are staying in the centre you are unlikely to need to take any transportation at all. Everything major is situated so cheek-by-jowl that walking is the very best way to get around. It also means you get to see the hidden gems and immerse yourself in Roman life.

One word of warning – the entire centre of Rome is cobbled, but the infilling between most of the cobbles has worn away over time, which makes them deadly for walking on in any sort of heel. You will see the diplomatic wives and fashionistas slowly tiptoeing their way down the streets in their stilettos, but it’s not a good move if you want to cover more than one street per day! So ladies, ditch your heels in favour of flat boots, pumps, or trainers.

Walking boots are practical but look so out of place given the overall stylishness of Rome that you may want to give them a miss. And if you haven’t anything flat, funky and comfy in the footware department, don’t worry, Rome has loads of shops specialising in just that type of footware (how else do you think the locals cope?) – try along the Via Giubbonari in Campo de’ Fiori for starters.

So what are you waiting for?
Grab your most stylish clothes and funkiest shoes, pack your guidebook and your sense of adventure, and make an appointment with yourself and a significant other to go on the most passionate, lighthearted and cultural weekend of your life.

Just one word of warning: Once you’ve been to Rome you will want to visit again and again and again because, yes, it truly hold the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.


© Claire Burdett.

First published in Citylife magazine, 2008. Photos taken by myself and Frank Tyson to go with this article can be seen at http://www.flickr.com/photos/funkyangelclaire/sets/72157622213506899/


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