An account of my Roman holiday.
Thursday 6th February
I started packing at 2pm and ten minutes later strolled out to the quays of the Liffey, where I boarded the Big Green Bus to Dublin Airport. Check-in and the flight to Rome Ciampino were easy and pleasant – despite the involvement of Ryanair. Personally I have never had an issue with that airline – if you set your expectations to reasonable levels you will be fine. You are livestock. You pay for everything, and you prepare for all eventualities in advance – as a result your journey should be unremarkable and cheap (so long as you booked it three months previously). Transit to our hotel near Roma Termini (Rome’s central station) was smooth – and I met my travel companion who’d arrived from London. Feeling peckish we headed out to Trattoria Giovanni close to midnight, where a splendid plate of lasagne was consumed. When the owner took out his guitar and started serenading the room, we took this as a sign to leave. We headed to Company Bar around the corner – an establishment that caters to fancy people. My research had indicated that the likelihood of hearing a Kylie record was high. Membership to this so-called private club required a three month membership for €10. I suspect that compulsory membership is restricted to tourists. Not carrying my passport on my person looked like it could have hindered my entrance until I remembered I keep a photo of this document for this exact purpose. The hallowed doors opened into a pleasant, but rather nondescript basement bar. Kylie played – well of course she did. We consumed a solitary beverage before retiring to our rooms. We were in Rome for our cultural edification. This exercise would being in earnest the next day.
Friday 7th February
We took the metro to the Ottaviano stop. This was the stop closest to the Vatican City – the home of the Pope and HQ of the Catholic Church. Somehow we got lost and found ourselves circumnavigating the entire outer wall of the city state. Typical of the Catholic Church I swore to myself – trying to prevent a homosexual atheist from entering. We trudged until out of nowhere appeared Saint Peter’s Square. I gasped. This place was so familiar from news reports; pictures and film. It was quite awe-inspiring. My friend was accosted by a smiling gentleman offering a wristband. Rejecting his offer the salesman tried to offer it as a gift. This seemed unusual and unwelcome. He then proceeded to take out his phone to show a picture of his wife and baby back in Senegal. Now maybe this friendly man genuinely did want to give a gift. I smelled a scam – not sure which type. Pickpocket? Phone theft? I only witnessed the encounter. When in public places like this I have a face with an expression like curdled milk to repel people from unwanted engagement.
After a quick sandwich we went to the tourist office where we met our tour guide Massimo. Having never been to Rome previously; knowing how deep the roots of this city’s history and culture run, we had booked a guided three hour tour of the Vatican. It was a wise decision. I could probably have spent the entire day wandering and only found a fraction of what we explored.
The statue of Laocoön and His Sons was immediately recognisable as were so many of the other monuments. I was able to get right up to the statue which would not be possible in summer at the height of the season when the throngs surrounding it are tweleve deep. It seemed busy to me for February, but by all accounts Rome in July is packed to capacity with pilgrims and tourists. The nun-market seems more prominent in February – everywhere I looked was a veiled sister.
The Sistine Chapel left mev staring slack-jawed, like a stunned mullet at its breath-taking beauty. The warnings to stay silent within the walls of this chapel where the Pope is chosen were a bit pointless thanks to the guards intoning ‘Do not take pictures’ every thirty seconds. St Peter’s Basilica – the parish church of the 1 billion strong Catholic Church was awe-inspiring – vast, grand, completely over the top, as all good catholic churches in the Mediterranean lands tend to be. None are on this scale however. The basilica has a capacity of 60,000 people. World famous statues and paintings were everywhere. The Pieta by Michelangelo and Transfiguration by Raphael were the most immediately recognisable. After some time wandering about, feeling slightly overwhelmed, I emerged onto the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square. In the same manner as I pretend to be Celine Dion whenever I am at the front of a boat, I raised my and waved at the crowd beneath who were steadfastly ignoring my delusion of being the first Irish, gay, atheist Pope.
At the end of the tour we departed. My friend was again halted by a man offering free bracelets and showing pictures of his wife and baby. This person was more persistent and refused to leave. In the end my companion turned and swore at him. Finally he left. He then turned around to look into the face of a nun who had witnessed the entire encounter. While the feeling may not have been mutual, I found the whole situation quite funny.
A word of advice to travellers to the Eternal City – wear sensible shoes that offer ankle support. There are hills and cobbled streets aplenty and Converse trainers simply will not cut the mustard. After a brief stop for new footwear for my friend, we headed over to the Trevi Fountain which is particularly beautiful at night-time. After our strenuous day we repaired to a restaurant where I had a pasta dish served by a glum looking waiter whose face resembled that of Lurch from the Addams’ Family. A moody but appetising end to an amazing day.
Saturday, 8th February
As Ireland headed to the polls for the general election, we took the Metro to the Colosseum and wandered over to the Roman Forum. The Forum is a rectangular plaza – surrounded by the ruins of ancient government buildings at the centre of the city of Rome. The Forum was the centre of day-to-day life in Rome – a marketplace; the venue for public speeches, criminal trials, and gladiatorial matches. It gives a real sense of how ancient the city is. The hill overlooking the Forum is called Palatine Hill. This is one of the Seven Hills of Rome and where the palaces of the Emperor and the rich were located. It’s impossibly grand. We spent a couple of hours here to whet our appetites for the main event of the day – the actual Colosseum. Almost 2000 years old it is one of the main symbols of Rome – ancient, huge, powerful, towering over this entire section of the city. The Colosseum is an amphitheatre that hosted spectacles that could accommodate an audience of between 50,000 and 80,000 people. Gladiator fights; animal hunts and other huge gatherings were held here. It is the most iconic symbol of Rome and each year attracts 7.5 million visitors. We made our way to a hostelry for a refreshing Aperol Spritz. Feeling revitalized we headed towards the famous Spanish Steps which were made famous to an international audience by Audrey Hepburn in the 1950 film ‘Roman Holiday’. I was posing regally while seated at the bottom of this outdoor stairwell for a picture, when I was startled by a policewoman roaring at me (in English) to move. I guess this is a requirement owing to the sheer numbers of people who might have the same bright idea as myself.
Sunday, 9th February
A journey out of town was the mission for the day – to the ancient ruins of Pompeii, located in the shadow of volcanic Mount Vesuvius, south of Naples. The high speed train journey on the Frecciarossa train service did not take long. Disembarking in Naples I looked at my phone to get directions to the local train station serving Pompeii. A stout old man approached us and asked if we needed assistance. We declined – we are clever people. He was undeterred and insisted on helping us. He took us downstairs and to the ticket desk and helped us buy our ticket and took us to the platform. He was clearly working for a tip so when we were ready I handed him three euros. The look of disdain on his face would churn butter. ‘Five euro for tourist assistance’ he snarled. In a panic I handed over another two euros. I just wanted him gone. The fact that I would have been perfectly well able to make my own way to the correct train all on my own didn’t enter my head. I had heard tales of Napoli and the shadowy figures who control the town. This old man was probably just on the make in a benign manner but it was a chance I was unwilling to take.
Pompeii was of course spectacular. Fully submerged in volcanic ash after the explosion of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, the town remained perfectly preserved. It was rediscovered in 1748 and since that time it has been painstakingly restored to how it looked as a bustling port town several millennia ago (the remains now lie a couple of kilometres inland but that is only as a result of the geological changes that resulted in the tsunami which followed the volcano. It’s a fascinating place that shows how advanced Roman society was – with running water (in lead pipes notwithstanding); theatre; music; sophisticated diet. The preservation of the town is amazing to witness. The town was home to fifteen thousand people at the time of the catastrophe and the details of their daily lives are preserved beautifully. This was a magical day for me having been interested in the events at Pompeii since primary school. It was a happy holidaymaker that made his way back to Rome that evening, where I ate a pizza supper in honour of Pompeii, before heading to the Company Bar to listen to a Kylie tune before my final Roman sleep.
Monday, 10th February.
We deposited our bags at the left luggage place in Termini Station and headed to outside the city walls. We were visiting the Catacombs. There are twelve kilometres of Catacombs underneath the ground surrounding Rome where the Christians were buried before the city and empire converted. There are various Catacombs to visit – we chose the Catacombs of San Sebastiano as it was the first one we found on the map. Having visited the Catacombs in Malta I knew what to expect. It’s nonetheless eerie, wandering through these narrow tunnels, ten metres below ground level and seeing the inscriptions on the sarcophagi
I bid farewell to my friend and hopped on the Metro to visit the Papal Basilica of Saint Paul (of ‘Letter to the Corinthians’ fame). He’s buried here and his coffin is on display. Some very devout nuns (and other people) were singing hymns while kneeling before the coffin. Wanting a better view, when one person slipped away, I slid in for a bird’s eye view of his burial ground. The devotion seems quite intense so I blessed myself, and looked demure. He inspires a lot of devotion does Saint Paul. His basilica could never be described as low key or subdued. It was a full on riot of the senses. And all the better for it. I love drama and there’s little as melodramatic as a Catholic place of worship.
My time in Rome was drawing to a close. I returned to the station; and made my way to the airport.
A most wonderful holiday in probably the most enchanting city I have ever been to.