Rome … Where do I even begin? For anyone who has ever seen Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday, you already know that the city is absolutely magical. And that classic does not even begin to show everything the city has to offer. It remains one of my favourite cities in Europe even after eight years since my first visit. I cannot even begin to describe all of the little treasures that I found while exploring the city – there are just two many. You will just have to visit Rome and uncover them for yourself.
Everyone knows about the popular attractions – and do not be fooled into thinking these are tacky and touristy because this is one of those occasions where they are not – they are popular for a reason. The Colosseum is spectacular. There is not another Roman arena in the world quite like it that I know of. At it’s full height it has three levels of arches and is glistening white. If you have the time and the money, the interior is almost as jaw dropping as the exterior. As if the arena itself were not enough, it is surrounded by the magnificent remnants of Ancient Rome. The Arch of Constantine stands next to the Colosseum, somewhat dwarfed but no less beautiful.
Walking up the ancient Via Sacra takes you through the Arch of Titus into the Imperial Forum. Wandering among the ruins of the Forum is like looking through a window in time to a completely different world. Above the Forum is the Palatine – one of Rome’s seven hills with views overlooking the entire city. I hiked up the stairs in heat reaching 32 degrees Celsius. I confess it was not an enjoyable experience but reaching the top was well worth it. The Forum is laid out beneath you, with the Colosseum on your right and the Alter of the Fatherland to your left. There isn’t another view in Rome quite like it. The palace constructed atop the Palatine by Nero and rebuilt later by Domitian, is astonishing. I had missed visiting the Palatine on my first visit to Rome; in fact I did not even really know what it was. I was completely shocked by its size and scope. Nearby, there are several other smaller forum ruins and walking further away from the Colosseum takes you to the Roman Baths of Caracalla and the Circus Maximus. Nothing much remains of the Circus Maximus but there are still some fairly imposing ruins of the baths.
But Rome is not just a treasure trove of ancient ruins; it was also a leading city of the Renaissance. If there is anything that rivals the Colosseum as Rome’s centrepiece, it is the Vatican. Across the Tiber, Vatican City is technically not Rome, but is in fact its own country. It is the smallest country in the world as well as the smallest city. Walking from Castel Sant’Angelo up the Via della Conciliazione, it is amazing to see St Peter’s Basilica grow in front of you. A massive circular plaza designed by Bernini with columns enveloping both sides directly precedes the Basilica. As the seat of the Pope and the heart of the Catholic Church, it is fittingly magnificent. Inside, the basilica is decked out with opulent paintings, carvings and far more gold leaf than is found in most cathedrals. And it is huge. Mammoth. Despite knowing it was the largest cathedral in the world, I didn’t quite comprehend just how big it was until I was standing in the central nave. There are chapels the size of small churches. Most of the popes are buried in Saint Peter’s so there is one funerary monument after another – all extravagantly carved. At the centre is Bernini’s opulent to the point of excess, baroque baldachin and above the high alter at the far end of the cathedral is Saint Peter’s Chair. The whole basilica is a work of art. Designed and crafted by some of the Renaissance’s most talented artists and architects. It is easy to understand why the line to get in to see the Basilica can easily be over an hour or two long on an average summer day.
Summers in Rome can reach scorching temperatures. I spent several days where I refused to leave my air-conditioned apartment because the temperatures surpassed 35 degrees Celsius (over 95 Fahrenheit). Growing up in London where 20 degrees Celsius is considered summer, I am ashamed to say my body just cannot handle heat above mid-thirties. But the city also becomes even more alive (if that is possible) during the summer months. The Romans certainly know how to make full use of their beautiful weather. There are open-air cinemas set up, outdoor bars and clubs and a festival along the Tiber open daily from 7pm. The festival is free and has a range of outdoor restaurants, bars and stalls selling various knick-knacks. There is live music and a range of food options from Tex-Mex to Lebanese. The food and drinks are pricier than some of the other cheaper places you might find in the city, but the atmosphere is well worth paying for. Enjoying a meal or a cocktail right on the river is the perfect way to pass a summer evening.
The Teatro dell’Opera also organises a series of outdoor operatic performances. The outdoor theatre is set against the backdrop of the ancient Caracalla baths creating a truly magnificent atmosphere. I saw Carmen while I was visiting and I was very impressed. The only drawback is the acoustics. Being outdoors instead of in the opera house, the acoustics are obviously not of the same quality, however, the experience and the atmosphere more than make up for this. Even though Carmen is a French opera set in Spain, there was something undeniably magical about seeing an opera in Italy where the art began several hundred years ago.
I could go on and on about everything there is to see in Rome – the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, the Piazza Navona to name a few – but this post would quickly turn into a 10,000 word essay. If you have even made it this far, I applaud you. If you are lucky enough to be visiting Rome in the coming year, by all means drop me a message or a comment and I can give you a more thorough account on some specific places. But what of the city itself? The feel, the people, the culture? Everything about Rome screams enthusiasm. The pace, the vibrancy, the food, and the passion – it all reflects the Romans’ inherent love of life. Rome is generally hectic except on certain holidays and exceptionally hot days when the pace slows down almost to a halt. The people are passionate and friendly – sometimes overly so. And yes, everyone speaks with their hands. That is not something invented by Hollywood. There are multiple hand gestures I discovered while I was there, some rather insulting so be careful when waving your arms around!
It is common knowledge that many capital cities do not reflect the culture of the country. Most Brits place Londoners in a separate category altogether while the French have practically disowned the Parisians it seems and vice versa. But Rome seems every bit as Italian as Florence, Naples, Milan and all of the other Italian cities I have explored. Each has been completely unique in their own way, but at the same time they all share a similar approach to life – interesting considering Italian unification only began two hundred years ago. There is a passion and an appetite for life, which is certainly not found in every culture. Nowhere is this more evident than in Rome.
Photography by Savannah Hayes
Top: View from the Palatine
Bottom: The Spanish Steps