In July 2003 taking advantage of some of the earliest Ryanair 1p flights I visited Rome with my son Jonathan. Rome Campino airport is quite a way out of the city so we took a coach to the main train station and then an unnecessary metro train to the station Colosseo. Unnecessary because we could easily have walked there instead and saved the fare and not suffered the oppressive underground heat.
The exit to the station is close to the site of the ancient city and as we emerged blinking into the sunlight I was immediately overawed by my first sight of the Colosseum which has to rate as one of the world’s genuine knee buckling experiences! Although this was my second visit to Rome (the first was in 1976) the sight of the amphitheatre felt just as exciting and dramatic as the first time.
It had been hot in the tunnels of the Metro and I had had a severe perspiration problem so the first thing to do was to have a cold drink and a change of shirt at an adjacent bar on the Piazza del Colosseo before walking the short distance to our hotel, The Romano, on Largo Corrado Ricci, which was conveniently close to the Forum.
Our first stop in Rome was the Colosseum itself which, two thousand years before, had been the largest amphitheatre ever built in the Roman Empire* and was capable of seating sixty-thousand spectators at gladiatorial combat events. I was stunned by the size and magnificence of the place and even though there are substantial parts of it now missing I found the scale of the place simply breathtaking.
And because there were so many things to see so was the pace of our sightseeing and after the Colosseum we passed by the Constantine Arch and through the south entrance and into the old Roman Forum and walked on old Roman roads past the spot of Julius Ceasar’s murder and the sites of the Senate and other civic buildings. To the west was the Palace of Augustus and over the Via Dei Fori Imperialli to the east was Trajan’s Market a soaring column in his memory and after an hour or so we left the Forum by the north entrance after passing through the Arch of Septimus Severus.
In just a little over ninety minutes we had covered about a thousand years of history and as we passed by the Victor Emmanuel National Monument erected to commemorate the nineteenth century unification of Italy we walked along Via Del Corso and into the areas that are predominantly Renaissance and Baroque in architectural character.
At the Spanish Steps and saw the house where John Keats lived and died and then the famous Trevi Fountain where thirty years ago, on my first visit, people were still allowed to sit on the monument and cool their feet off in the water but that has been stopped now.
There is a tradition of throwing three coins in the fountain guarantees that you will return one day to Rome. These days’ tourists with a desire to return to the Eternal City deposit an average of €3,000 a day in the fountain and this is collected up every night and is used to fund social projects for the poor of the city. That’s probably why people aren’t allowed to paddle in it anymore and there are lots of police on duty to make sure they don’t.
Next, we visited the Pantheon, which is one of the best preserved ancient Roman buildings, originally built as a pagan temple but later converted into a Christian Church and is the burial place of the ex kings of Italy and other important Italians including the artist Raphael and after that it was the Baroque Piazza Navona.
I liked all of these sights but I was intrigued by something much more mundane. All of the manhole covers displayed the Roman symbol SPQR which, I learned later, is the motto of the city and appears in the city’s coat of arms, as well as on many of the civic buildings. SPQR comes from the Latin phrase, Senātus Populusque Rōmānus (The Senate and the People of Rome), referring to the government of the ancient Republic. It appeared on coins, at the end of public documents, in dedications of monuments and public works, and was the symbol on the standards of the Roman legions.
By mid afternoon when we crossed the River Tiber over the Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II we had completed the ancient, the medieval, and the modern and now it was time to do the religious. Rome is the most important holy city in Christendom and St Peter’s Basilica at the heart of the Vatican City is the headquarters of the Catholic Church. A Basilica by the way is a sort of double Cathedral because it has two naves.
We walked past the Castel Sant’Angelo and into the busy square outside the Basilica where a long queue of people snaked forever around the perimeter waiting for their turn to go inside. We joined the back of it and were pleased to find that it moved quite quickly towards the main doors and soon we were inside the biggest and the tallest church in the World that has room for sixty-thousand worshippers at one sitting. It was busy inside but not uncomfortable and we soaked up the information from the guide’s commentary as we passed by chapels with precious holy relics, the tombs of dead Popes and rooms with glass cases full of religious artefacts.
After the tour was finished we paid for an optional extra and took the stairs to the top of the dome which involved an awful lot of steps and a tight squeeze at the very top but we were rewarded with panoramic views across the city all the way back to the Colosseum.
After a final look around the outside of the Basilica we concluded that we were unlikely to see Pope John Paul II today, most likely because at eighty-four years old he probably liked a lie down in the afternoon, so we left St Peter’s to return to the hotel.
* Although I came across an information board at Arles in France that claimed that the Flavian Amphitheatre at Pouzzouli near Naples was ever so slightly larger in dimensions but not in seating capacity.