When in Rome.... Part One
Allegedly all roads lead to Rome. I must have taken a long detour as it now seems a crime to have put off visiting for so long. Last month I put things right on that front. I did not regret it!
It’s a cliché, but in this case it is the absolute truth: Rome literally took my breath away. Millions of words have been written about this majestic city so it’s a little intimidating. But I'll give it a whirl!
The best thing I did to prepare my visit was make contact with local operator Dearoma Tours run by the charismatic Valerio. I’d been inspired by a blog post by Andrea from Rear View Mirror describing an evening of zipping around Rome with a personal guide on Vespas and I was immediately sold on the concept. I badly wanted to do this. When it turned out that a bicycle tour by day to explore the hidden haunts of Rome was also possible I was a resounding YES!
This trip was part of my Summer on the Rails, so naturally I turned up by train. I love arriving in cities this way, it’s like entering a theatre through the stage door. You get to the see the reality of places, often not the most elegant side of a town (unless it’s Venice of course…), but at least the real face of it. When you emerge from the station, you step onto the stage and become part of the play.
Rome is no different. The high-speed train had slowed to a crawl, trundling over the criss-cross of tracks in the hinterlands of the station under a heavy, moody sky. The promise of thunder was in the air and an army of achingly chic business bods on the train were already crowding the aisles, eager to get home.
Rome station is a bustling place as you can imagine - full of shops, people everywhere. There’s even a church, the first time I’ve seen that in a station. But then this is the home of the Vatican after all.
We’d chosen to hire an apartment rather than stay in a hotel, much my preferred option. Not only does this make for a more local experience, it also supports the economy with fewer middle-men. As I emerged a short metro ride later into the Lazio area, the thunderstorm had retreated leaving behind a humid hum in the air. It was hot, despite being mid-September and nine o’clock at night.
I traipsed along with my usual larger than life luggage (will I ever learn?) through the kind of neighbourhood street that is becoming a rare breed in this era of shopping malls and big supermarkets. Grocery stores lit by very bright lights, a tiny coffee shop (little more than a hole in the wall) and money changers were still open and people were relaxing in the warm evening on chairs in the street, chatting. It was a nice atmosphere and I felt completely safe. Past the shops, things got a little more deserted and I was happy with the very accurate directions I had for the apartment!
The next day was spent losing my Rome virginity in a daze, bedazzled by the vast scale of splendour. I felt cradled by antiquity – everywhere I looked there was something to feast my eyes on, sometimes even gape at. Not the best look, that slightly underhung look of a dropped jaw, but who cares right?
I drifted past the sights in a haze of history: The myriad of ruins of at Forum, the colossal circle of the Collosseum, Palantine Hill, the pivotal point of ancient rome and the Circus Maximus, a massive track used for chariot races. Together they combine to create an energy of magnificence that still resonates from this ancient seat of power.
Even the mundane things, such as drain covers in the street bear the ancient motto of the city SPQR (Senātus Populusque Rōmānus) meaning “The Senate and People of Rome”. Nothing in Rome is done half-heartedly it seems.
Crossing the river Tiber into the Travestere area with its narrow streets, abundance of eateries and street stalls, we were in desperate need of refueling and a rest. Unless you’re a seasoned visitor in Rome, restaurants can be hit and miss in the main tourist areas – like anywhere I suppose. On this occasion we stumbled upon Il Ponentino, a reasonably priced neighbourhood restaurant with quality food, a great atmosphere and exactly one free table for two.
Our post lunch ramble was a little more haphazard, winding our way in the general direction of the Vatican. Not a religious person myself, I couldn’t help be mesmerized by the grandeur of Piazza San Pietro (or St Peter’s Square, although the space isn’t square at all!). Queues stretched for what looked like miles and whereas I’m sure it is spectacular inside, we did not have three hours to waste on waiting.
Quite frankly, I was more interested in checking out the Swiss Guards in their medieval customs, ancient mercenaries, carrying on a tradition that has now come full circle back into fashion in 21st century wars. Bar the silly costumes of course - these soldiers for hire would look more at home alongside Harlequin and Columbine than their camouflaged counterparts in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Dragging ourselves away from this colourful spectacle we headed back to our Lazio ranch. After all, we had a rendezvous with Valerio and his Vespas!
Dithering in the street outside our apartment at dusk, we were picked up by Valerio and his fellow guide. It would be just us on the tour and it felt very personal immediately. Valerio has a rare combination of deep knowledge, passion and a laid-back charm that is a winner in his line of work.
I’ve not been on a Vespa before and although I was only a passenger I admit I was little nervous at the prospect of Roman traffic or more precisely, us threading through it. Patient, polite and funny, Valerio quickly put me at ease, even if I was holding on a little tight and asking a cascade of questions!
Relaxing into the rhythm of the traffic, we weaved in and out of the traffic flow. After a while, I started to look up and enjoy being a part of the cityscape and feeling like a local. As Valerio noted: “When you’re on a Vespa, you look like a Roman.” Sure – I felt like one too, once my tense grip had eased off a little!
The city shows off her sights brilliantly by night. Monuments and ruins are lit up to reveal detail you may not notice in broad daylight. The balmy September evening air brushed like cool velvet against my skin. I didn’t even notice the fumes we were no doubt breathing in, but this might also have something to do with Valerio’s little trick of always getting in front of cars to avoid being blasted directly by exhausts.
Every so often we would stop to see something up close and out would come an Ipad with pictures of what the buildings had looked like in their heyday and illustrations of the people discussed. This was exactly the answer to my unasked wish during the day: To get an idea of what things looked like back then, as they were intended.
One of reasons there are so many temples in town is that for hundreds of years the Romans would swap and change their deities to suit their needs. If things weren’t going so well, they would simply try out another god or goddess and if fortune returned this cult would be made central to the faith. That would of course require another temple to be built. But hey – that’s was no problem with vast riches flowing in from all over the empire. When Christianity arrived many thought this would be another case of a transient trend. How wrong they were.
Valerio is clearly regretful of some of the things that have happened to his city in the name of Christianity. Important ruins were plundered for their marble and maintenance of the genius structures of the aqueducts ignored, a fatal mistake that eventually left the city with no fresh water. And then there’s the disfigurement or “adaptation” of many pagan statues to make them “Christian”.
After zipping around central town for a while, we sped along the Circus Maximus and out to the public baths of Caracalla, the second largest of these to be built in the Roman Empire. One of Valerio’s main sorrows for Rome is the loss of the tradition of the public baths. In the Eastern part of the ex-empire this tradition lives on strong in the form of Turkish baths, but in Rome these famous baths now resemble a statuesque skeleton, an echo of their former glory.
I was blown away by the extent of Valerios knowledge. A Roman through and through he clearly loves his city and has a Masters in Roman History to back up this passion. Refreshingly candid and balanced in his views, his insight gave me a glimpse of the stupendous impact Rome has had on the world around it and vice versa. He is of course, like the majority of Italians, staunchly Roman-Catholic, but he considers himself a mature one, able to see both the good and the bad of the faith.
Whisking us back into town, our minds swirled with sights, sounds, smells and newfound awareness of Rome as Valerio dropped us off in the busy square of Campo de’ Fiori in Travestere.
He wisely recommended that we explore the back streets for food rather than hang around in the main square, a notorious tourist trap. By then tired and hungry, we managed to venture only a little off the square. The result was a mediocre meal with over-zealous waiters hovering, one of my pet-hates. But it didn’t matter – in our heads we were still on those Vespas!
Stay tuned for Part Two where I explore the secret Rome by bicycle and unexpectedly meet a bunch of gladiators!
Dearoma Tours kindly hosted us on the Vespa Tour. As always, views and opinions expressed are mine.