It was about a two hundred and fifty kilometre drive to Rome which took just over three hours and with a full day to pack in the coach picked us up before breakfast so we collected food parcels and set of for the Italian capital, which is the third most visited European city after London and Paris. The coach took the road towards Naples and then swung around the base of Vesuvius and picked up the A1 Autostrada that runs all the way from Naples to Rome and then on to Milan.
The coach dropped us off near the site of the ancient city and I was immediately overawed by my first sight of the Colosseum. I had studied history for the last six years but this was the first time that I had visited any of the exciting places that I had delighted in reading about.
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 Augustus Arch and joined an official city guide who took us through the south entrance and into the old Roman Forum and walked on old Roman roads past the spot of Julius Ceaser’s murder on 15th March 54BC 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 and his personal column in his memory and after an hour or so we left the Forum by the north entrance after passing through the Arch of Constantine.
In just a little over sixty minutes we had covered about a thousand years of history and as we passed by the Victor Emmanuelle National Monument, erected to commemorate the nineteenth century unification of Italy, we walked along Via Del Corso and into the areas that were predominantly Renaissance and Baroque in architectural character. Rome was of the few major European cities that escaped World-War-Two relatively unscathed and so most of the buildings and monuments are completely original.
We visited the Spanish Steps and saw the house where John Keats died and then the famous Trevi Fountain where thirty years ago 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 so we did this and it must work because I went back in 2003 and then again in 2004. 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!
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 like 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 artifacts. 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 stairs and a tight squeeze at the very top but we were rewarded with fantastic 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 Paul VI today, most likely because at seventy-nine years old he probably liked a lie down in the afternoon, so we left St Peter’s to return to the coach. Before leaving the city the driver did a whistle stop drive around some of the sights that we had missed earlier in the day including the window where the dictator Mussolini used to make his animated speeches from.