Continuing on from his travels around Malta, our intrepid explorer has made his way to Italy, starting off with a sejourn in the Eternal City, Rome.
After Malta, I embarked on a month-long trip through Italy, seeing Rome, Naples, Sorrento, Pompeii, Herculaneum, Florence, Pisa, Bologna, Ravenna, Padua and Venice. I’m now in love with the country and have made it my mission to get everyone else to love it too.
General impressions: everything you’ve heard about cafés, pizzerias, gelato, trattorias, piazzas, sharp suits and criminally insane drivers, is true. Especially the bit about the drivers. Maltese drivers stop for you even when there’s no zebra crossing or traffic light in sight; Italian drivers won’t stop for you even if you’re on a zebra crossing and the pedestrian light is green. There are also a lot of obelisks, fountains and hidden charges (the hostels’ nightly “city tax”, service charges in restaurants, etc). Here’s a tip – if you’re taking an intercity train and you’re not in a mad rush, choose a Regionale train whenever possible. The Frecciarossa trains are a little faster, but a lot more expensive.
I spent four days in Rome, which is enough time to see most of the sights if you’re prepared to do a lot of walking. And it’s definitely better to go on foot when you can; Rome is one of those places where the parts in-between the famous sights are almost as interesting as the sights themselves. The city is chock-full of fantastic houses in bold shades of pink, yellow and orange, and as you’d expect, it has more than its fair share of parks, museums and impressive churches.
First, the obvious tourist attractions. The Vatican will cost you up to €20 to see, but being maybe the best collection of art in the world, it’s worth every cent. Ignore the dire warnings that you’ll be lost without a tour guide; I went around by myself and I was fine. Other than that, leave plenty of time for the Sistine Chapel and the Raphael Rooms, check out the ceilings and floors as well as the walls, and have a great time.
My favourite outdoor sights were the Trevi fountain (pictured above), which is sublime, and the Piazza Navona, a night-time hub of activity complete with fountains, restaurants, ice-cream-eating tourists, buskers and street painters. Finally, a single €7.50 ticket will get you into the Coliseum (well worth seeing from the inside), the Roman Forum (columns and arches galore), and the Palatine Hill (panoramic views, plus the remains of a truly gigantic palace). As a special bonus, the Roman Forum is flanked by the via dei Fori Imperiali and the truly stunning Altare della Patria (pictured above), a grand monument 135m wide and 81m high.
On to the less obvious attractions. If you like art, check out the Palazzo Barberini gallery, home to Judith and Holoferne, a graphic but strangely moving painting by Caravaggio. And if you want to see Rome’s more modern, underground side, head for the San Lorenzo district. It’s got plenty of good places to go at night – I recommend La Mura, which is just my kind of “slightly odd” (slightly odd funky music playing in the background, slightly odd furnishings, slightly odd wall decorations, etc). There’s also great street art wherever you turn, the must-see being an entire wall dedicated to a mural by the artist Alicè Pasquini.
If by any chance you’ve been reading this thinking “This is all very well, but what about a crypt made entirely of human bones?”, then you’re in luck. Beneath the Santa Maria della Concezione church on the via Veneto you’ll find a series of chapels containing the skeletal remains of 4,000 bodies, all arranged to form altars, arches and wall decorations. It’s very effectively done, and by the time I left my head was full of ruminations about death. I guess a skeleton holding a scythe made out of bones will do that to you. On a more cheerful note, if you’re staying anywhere near the via Cavour – and you should be – head to the “Al nadi al arabi”, a cosy Arab club near the Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica. I went on a Saturday night, and it had live Arabic music, hookahs galore (the musician managed to take a drag while playing), and even some enthusiastic Arabic dancing from the table next to me. The charge for the music is €5, and it’s included in the bill.
I can’t recommend anywhere to eat because I didn’t eat anywhere particularly great; where I can help you is budget accommodation. The Freedom Traveller hostel is five minutes’ walk from the central train station, and it’s very cheap – they even throw in a simple breakfast. The owner is friendly and helpful, and while the hostel is small, it does have a nice common area designed to help you meet fellow travellers. Alternatively you can stay in the M&J, which isn’t as charming, but it’s even closer to the station and it has its own restaurant/club. It also offers tourists a cool “three day plan” that covers all the city’s must-sees, as well as a lot of its hidden charms. Fair warning: if you want to see everything in the plan, you’ll need to be extremely fit (at least if you get lost as often as I do). Also, don’t bother with “Il Buco di Roma”. You have to wander well out of your way into a residential area and climb street after sloping street, all so you can look at St. Peter’s through a keyhole. Just go to the Vatican and see it properly.
There’s a lot more I could say about Rome, but I’ll stop here. If you’re going to Italy but you only have time to see three places, make Rome one of the three. The other two, of course, are Florence and Venice, which I’ll be getting to in other articles. In the meantime, Google “Capuchin Crypt” – but not late at night.
All images courtesy Turismo Roma except photo of Coliseum © Diliff on Wikimedia Commons, licenced under CC BY-SA 2.5 licence, and photo of Altare della Patria © Fczarnowski on Wikimedia Commons, licenced under CC BY-SA 3.0 licence