Back in the summer of 2009, shortly after graduating from university, I had the chance to join five school friends for an epic road trip – a Grand Tour, if you will – departing from England by ferry, down through Spain to Barcelona via the San Fermin festival, the (in)famous running of the bulls in Pamplona. From Catalonia, we would head east through France and the Cote d’Azur and down into Italy, basing ourselves in the picturesque Umbrian countryside for a few days before turning north, heading home via Lake Garda, the Austrian Alps, the Black Forest in Germany and finally northern France.
This is part six of my recollections and photos of the trip; the first of two sections covering a short single daytrip visit, walking through the heart of the capital; Rome.
The fifth instalment, a exploring the countryside of Umbria, can be found here.
My head was still cloggy from an excess of beer the previous night. A combination of a late night and multiple quantities of large bottles of Birra Morretti had been, as was now clear, a mistake. Just one more beer. It’s easily (and frequently) done. We groggily assembled for the short drive to the local station of Chiusi, where we would swap our mode of transportation for a train ride to the bustle of Rome, the beating heart of Italy, and a two hour journey south.
When I have a choice, I would more often than not, choose to take the slower option of train travel. Sometimes, it’s obviously more practical to take a flight; be it for convenience, or simply cost. However, nothing connects you more to a location, and a journey to that location, by taking a slow train. The travel to a destination should be part of the experience, an adventure in itself, and not just a means to get to A to B in the quickest possible time. It’s why I’ve taken longer trips by train – around Europe; across Canada; from Stockholm to London or by leaving London late one evening to find yourself waking up in the Highlands of Scotland the next morning. It’s why I’ll continue to desire to travel by train where I can. This time, a two hour trip would suffice – passing through the Italian countryside on our way to the historic metropolis.
I’ve visited Rome a few times before, each time managing to travel in the peak of summer, July or August; each visit throwing me full on into the hottest and busiest time of the year, or coinciding with the Ferrogosto – a two/three week period (and sometimes longer) in August when many family run businesses temporarily close down and decamp away from the heat of the city. As we pulled into Roma Termini, we realised today would be no exception to previous visits. There was no avoiding both the heat and the hustle, and, as our time was limited to a single day, we decided just to get on with seeing as much as we could see before returning to our base for the evening.
Here are the highlights of a few locations to see when on both a budget and limited time. If you have more time, walking between the sights is a great way to see and get a feel for the city. However, on our limited time, we purchased a day metro ticket, and divided our travel between the metro and on foot. Make sure you carry a large bottle of water, as you’ll be able to refill this at the many fountains found throughout the city.
As a bonus ‘country’ to add to any country collection list, the Vatican City is the worlds smallest independent state by both area and population. Located to the west of the River Tiber, it’s the home of Catholicism, and a pilgrim destination of worshippers and tourists following the steps of St Peter, considered to be the first leader of the Catholic church. We stood in the famous square named for him, surrounded by the high circle of columns, focusing our attention on the grand obelisk in the centre of the square. Beyond this, the massive dome of the basilica loomed. Sadly we lacked the time to join the large queues and explore inside. A lasting memory from a visit five years earlier, gazing up at the dome from inside, overhearing a tourist asking where ‘the other fifteen chapels are?’, presumably after just visiting the Sistine Chapel – the famous Papal residence and location for the conclave during the election of a new Pope.
From the Vatican, head south on a a twenty minute walk along the Tiber, and past the curve in the river at Isola Tiberina, towards the calmer area of the city by day – Trastevere.
An oasis a quiet in comparison to other regions of the city, we wandered though nearly empty narrow streets, lined with tall & neat historical houses. The area feels like it is an area of the city home to local residents, people who live and work in the city, rather than one dominated solely by tourists, and it enables you to get a real glimpse of city life. It was why I enjoyed our short time there, and I’d heard good things about the area at night. Sadly, we couldn’t stay beyond a quick lunchtime pizza (of course) in a quaint alfresco cafe, but I will return to this area one day to explore more.
Altare della Patria – Altar of the Fatherland
Walking northeast, we headed back past the Isola, crossing the Tiber to arrive at the busy Piazza Venezia – a hectic maze of roundabouts, road junctions and traffic that made me grateful we hadn’t decided to rent mopeds or a car during our visit.
The Altare is a giant marble monument, gleaming national pride with white stone, and built for Victor Emmanuel – the first King of the united Italy. Or at least that was the intention. Although impressive, the controversy of the construction cannot be ignored – at the time, from 1885, a large area of a medieval neighbourhood was removed, and the monument is considered by some not to be in keeping with the surrounding historical architecture of the city. Personally, I quite liked it. The sheer scale and audacity of the construction must be admired, purely as it wouldn’t be done by the rulers of contemporary European leaders today. Probably.
Immediately behind the Altare, we would soon be walking through the Foro Romano, and then exploring the Colosseum – the cultural icon of the city. These are the most historical sections of Rome, containing the ruins of the Roman Empire, and one of my favourite parts of the city.