Roman Holiday

By John Thomson


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Dramatic Bernini sculptures at Piazza Navona. Photos by: John Thomson

When I was a child, my idea of a Roman holiday was spinning around the Eternal City on a Vespa scooter, the wind in my hair and a beautiful princess hanging onto my waist. I took my cue from the 1954 movie Roman Holiday starring Gregory Peck as Joe, a brash American journalist, and Audrey Hepburn as a young princess anxious to break the confines of her fairy-tale life.

Fast forward to 2016, and my wife, Elizabeth, and I are in Rome minus the Vespa. We booked a mid-May arrival thinking the locals would still be at work, the kids would still be in school, and we could avoid the crowds. Wrong.

Hollywood idols Gregory and Audrey may have had the run of the place in the 1950s, but we found modern Rome packed with people; try as we may, we couldn’t always escape the hordes.

Crowded yes, but nothing diminished the wonder of Rome and walking, spellbound, among temples and buildings thousands of years old.
 
We stayed in an AirBnb apartment in a charming part of town just north of Trastevere, a popular tourist haunt, on the western side of the Tiber River. We started the day, like everyone else, with a cappuccino and a cornetto, a crescent shaped pastry, at the tratorria across the street.

Lunchtime was equally pleasant. The neighbourhood pizzeria, which was more of a ristorant than a pizza joint, started its noon service with a complimentary plate of antipasto to go along with the mains, as a way to attract nearby office workers, I suspect. The free plate of salamis, artichokes and pepperonis was a meal in itself and, although the guidebooks said Romans don’t expect to be tipped, our AirBnb host told us otherwise. As a result, we always rounded our bill off to the nearest euro and left the change to show our appreciation.

In the evenings, we often ate at home followed by a trip to the neighbourhood gellateria. Nighttime gelato is a big deal in Rome and it’s as much a social outing as it is a desire to satisfy those sugar cravings. Our gellateria even had formal table service.
 
Because of our location, we walked to many of the major sites. Rome is a maze of winding streets and alleyways and we weren’t the only ones standing in the middle of the sidewalk trying to figure out exactly where we were, but we soon developed a routine.

We found that the Corso Vittorio Emanuelle II, or simply the Corso, led to many attractions on the other side of the river. The Corso is Rome’s high-end shopping area, home to Hermes and Vuitton and the other designer labels but for us, it was our entry point to the Pantheon, Piazza Navona and the Fontana di Trevi.
 
The Trevi Fountain was mesmerizing. Like Michelangelo before him, Bernini had turned cold, inert stone into expressive, dynamic and energetic figures. Unfortunately, the geography of the place funnels everyone into a very small area, and standing beside the Trevi required patience navigating the souvenir hawkers, the Poliza and the rest of humanity. Thankfully, there were other Bernini sculptures equally as dramatic 10 minutes away at the less crowded Piazza Navona.
 
From the Trevi, we walked to the Spanish Steps. They were wide and plentiful. The backpackers bounded up the steps like gazelle. We opted for the elevator at the nearby Spagna Metro stop to take us to the top. From there, we hiked up one of Rome’s seven hills to the Borghese Gardens and the world famous Borghese Gallery. Overlooking the city and St. Peter’s Basilica, the Gardens are a vast collection of pathways traversed by walkers, lovers and people on Segways (Europe loves those Segway people movers. We saw them in Spain, too).

The Gallery housed the Renaissance masters, Caravaggio, Titian, Raphael and Rubens. The nearby National Gallery carried less-famous artists, but it was also noteworthy.
 
Sometimes, we tired of walking and took the subway. The Coliseo Metro stop took us to the Colosseum and from there we ambled next door to the Forum, home to numerous temples, monuments and the Curia, once the seat of the Senate. Many of the structures are intact, hence the price of admission, but the ruins outside the Forum, which can be seen from the roads, primarily the Via Alessandria, linking the Colosseum to Piazza Venezia were also impressive.
 
Ah, the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel. Anticipating huge crowds, we booked ahead and paid extra for the early 7:30 AM tour. The surcharge was well worth it.

Our party of 12 was the first through the doors and we were left alone in the Chapel to marvel at the ceiling, still resplendent in its vibrant colours. Benches along the wall allowed us to sit and ponder in near silence. It was magical.

After 15 minutes, we were ushered out to make way for another group. This time, the Chapel was choked with people bumping into each other and straining their necks. A few tried taking pictures and were scolded by the ushers. Photography is forbidden. But why bother? What you see on the postcard is exactly what you get. There are no other vantage points. My advice? Book the early tour and buy the postcard.
 
Postcards had prepared us for the majesty of the Sistine ceiling but we were totally unprepared for the many opulent churches that populate Rome, one on every corner, it seems.

We had decided in advance to avoid the churches because, you know, once you’ve seen one… but we couldn’t have been more wrong. These striking buildings, each with their own personality, took our breath away.

The cavernous interiors with marble columns and gilded transepts were simply awe-inspiring. At the Basilica of Ambrose and Charles, just off the Corso, the gentle sound of chanting filled the room. The fact the downtown churches were alive with worshippers (tourists are asked to remain quiet) added to their significance.
 
We saved the Appian Way for the end. Built in 312 BC to connect Imperial Rome to the Adriatic Sea, the 563-kilometre road was a crucial part of the Empire, designed to move troops to and from the capital. Today, the Appian Way is prime real estate and home to expensive villas hidden behind the shrubbery and terracotta walls. Some of the original stones are still intact, stamped with ruts created by the wagons and chariots and armies of legionnaires who marched this way over 2,000 years ago, but they soon give way to a more modern pathway.

That’s Rome for you, a mix of the ancient and the new. And that’s its appeal. In addition to the historic sites – and there are many – Rome is peppered with statuary and ruins, many of them just sitting there, waiting to be discovered as you round a corner or walk down the street.

The city was charming, changing and full of character. Elizabeth and I loved our Roman holiday. It was like being in a movie.


IF YOU GO:
Various carriers fly from British Columbia to Rome, but none fly direct. We flew Air Canada to Montreal and changed planes before continuing to Rome’s Fiumicino Airport. The Airport is 26 kilometres southwest of the city and is serviced by train, bus and taxi. The express train at 11 euros per person is the fastest. The exchange rate fluctuates but, for simple math, we converted one euro to CDN$1.50. Troll the websites for tours of the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel. There are many variations. We booked ahead with City Wonders before leaving Canada.

 

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