Rome. Whence all roads lead and, so legends tell, the birthplace of Naughtius Maximus, Biggus Dickus and many other giants of classical history. We went last in September 2018.
As we rounded a nondescript corner, the woman directly in front of me let out a shriek of awe and surprise. I knew what she had seen. It wasn’t my first time, but the effect was the same as ever. Only two buildings have ever moved me to tears; the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and this one. The Pantheon.
No photograph does it justice. You can’t get far enough back to capture its scale, although there’s a large piazza in front. It’s hemmed in on three sides by lesser, puny buildings. It is the blueprint for municipal and national hubris, all those town halls, palaces, country estates, even the Washington Whitehouse. What their architects aimed for was The Pantheon. They didn’t come close.
The Pantheon is perfect in scale and symmetry. It is the authentic fist of the ancient past planted in the face of ephemeral modernity. It is effortlessly arrogant and powerful, steadfast and self-assured. I like The Pantheon. Can you tell? I’ll shut up about it now.
Rome is littered with so many historical riches it’s overwhelming. Unfortunately, so are the crowds of people who want to come and see its buildings, churches, piazzas, fountains, statues, and museums. The best time to visit is from October to April when there are fewer tourists. There were that many people crammed at the Trevi Fountain in September that I needed a trebuchet to land my coin in the water and make a wish. I won’t replicate what can be so easily found on the internet, but there are more gems of historical interest just in the centre of Rome than there is in the entire United Kingdom. There’s obvious ones like, for example, the Colosseum. The name is no accident, it originally held 70 000 spectators. Nearby the Roman Forum is a fascinating stroll, along the old Appian way (it helps to have a guide btw). There’s little left of the Circus Maximus, just its footprint, but round the corner is the ‘Mouth of Truth’ and two gorgeous little temples; ‘Hercules Victor’ and ‘Portunus’, these are perhaps a little off the beaten track.
The Classical period is my thing, yet Rome has much more. Beautiful Baroque fountains and piazzas abound. I have bad memories of the Campo de Fiori, just south of the Piazza Novona. It was around 9.00pm. I was tired, mildly inebriated and suffering from sunstroke. I intended to break wind discretely but misjudged my rectal tension. In the moment of over zealous eructation, I remembered I was wearing cream linen trousers and, like the lady above, let out a shriek of awe and surprise.
‘I need the toilet,’ I yelled in panic.
‘When? When?’ laughed my friend Mick.
‘When, what?’ I grimaced…
‘Tell me Quando, Quando Quando’ he sang, like a jocular Englebert Humperdinck, as I sprinted into a nearby restaurant.
Brushing past bemused waiters I bolted into the loo. Here I learned that linen is a curiously absorbent material. Anyway, using a hefty wad of toilet paper, I fashioned a makeshift panty-liner and, mumbling my apologies to the staff, slipped away like a thief in the night. I made my way back to the hotel, avoiding crowds and sticking to the shadows.
Setting aside my cautionary tale, the area to eat, drink and be ‘festoso’ is known as Trastevere. It’s where the locals go and is packed with atmospheric and charming places to spend an enjoyable evening. My wife and I spent our honeymoon in Rome and went round here every night. It’s a magical place. Remember, restaurants don’t open till around 8.00pm. You might have to wait for your egg and chips, so do grab a pie around lunchtime. Beware eating near the main tourist locations, I’ve been served some dung.
I can’t write about Rome and ignore the Vatican. In my view, it looks better inside than out, but as a building, it aims for power rather than beauty, and Rome has plenty of beautiful churches. Security is robust and queues to enter can be lengthy. If you wish to attend mass, grab a seat ten minutes before kick off as they go quickly. The Sistine Chapel is great but can get crowded. When I was there, it was full of noisy teenagers staring at their phones; clearly Michelangelo should have tried harder. The Vatican museum is brilliant if overwhelming. To do it justice would take many hours, as every major artist of the last two millennia has a work or two in. I confess to being a Philistine, but I reckon even serious art lovers would get ‘Picasso-ed out’. There’s only so much one can take.
Should you go?
I tried to keep this article short and not do a mere list of sights to see, but inevitably I’ve done some of that. It’s hard not to. I’ve missed out lots. Imagine if the London museum exploded and scattered its artefacts all over town. That’s what Rome offers; a casual wealth of 2000 years of treasure on every street corner. It’s a hectic place, but you’d see most of it in three days at a not too hectic pace. I must own up to bias. We honeymooned there and have been about five times now. It’s my favourite city in the world. It’s a must see.
If you liked my blog, there’s every possibility that you’ll like the comic novel I’ve recently published. As much as I enjoyed teaching, and respect those who do the job, there’s plenty to laugh at. I spent 30 years giggling 😊. It’s a bargain at £2.21 for the Kindle! Click on the image for the Amazon link.
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