Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Eternal City - Rome

Rome, Roma.. The Eternal City.. there is not many people who do not know of this city. A number of friends actually asked for recommendation on what to do in Rome and quite a few who were there gave us pointers too. It seems that this is one of those places that most people have on their must visit list.

Rome is one of the most visit cities in Europe, the capital of the Roman empire, the home of the Pope... the impressive list will go on and on and as we all know 'rome was not built in a day'. It took more than two and half thousand years they say... so you can't really do it in a short few days... But here's what you still can do in 3-4 days.

Best time to visit Rome is when the weather is good - late spring, summer, early autumn.. but obvious the crowd and the cost goes exponentially up. We choose to visit in late November 2013 and took our changes. Flight was cheap, accommodation was cheap.. so why not ;) The trip was still really good but it was raining the the whole time! And when you travel in winter it is dark by 5pm, so hours of sight seeing with daylight is much shorter. The first tip on visiting Rome during rainy season. A good pair of water proof shoes and an umbrella! During peak season.. lots of patience because there will be throngs of people and lots of pre-booking ahead to skip the ticketing lines.

Generally Rome can be divided into 4 'main' areas to visit. Depending on your areas of interest, it can be divided into 4 days for a comfortable visit or combine them for a brisk tour of 2-3 days instead. If you are very interested in history or classic art etc... you could easily spend even more days. Here's a short guide on what you can with 3-4 days.

Rome & Vatican City - Area Overview

Area A - Vatican City & around

This would be the must see for any regular tourist. What some people may not know about the 'Holy See' is that it is an independent state. It is not a part of Rome. In fact, Vatican City is the smallest internationally recognized independent state in the world. How does this effect you? The Roma Pass doesn't work here, you need the buy  a pass intended for the Vatican City or you can just but the tickets online for the museum. St Peter's entrance is free anyways but there is a queue.. so do go early and plan your time well. Also, note the dress code: no shorts, miniskirts or bare shoulders. As we were there in winter, we didn't have this problem. On the weekends look out for time which St Peter's is closed for preparation for Mass.

If you want to see Pope Francis, a nice way is to attend his Sunday Angelus at St. Peter’s Square. You need to go early if you want a place to sit, but otherwise you can watch further away and still see him on the big screen.

We wanted to join a guided tour of the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel. Unfortunately if you don't pre-book there was no chance to get an official English tour. There were plenty of other people hawking their own tours but we were not sure of the quality and decided to just give it a miss. If you are interested in taking a tour organised by the museum, do book early with them on their website (link here).

If you like history and renaissance art and such, you could spend easily more than one day just going through the exhibits and the work of many great masters. Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Raphael.. I think all the teenage mutant ninja turtles was there save for Donatello - but I am not too sure.. darn should have taken a guide. Jokes aside, the collection was impressive especially the frescoes. Michelangelo’s frescoes the creation of Adam is perhaps the most well known.. while it was no doubt impressive it was much smaller than I imaged. You practically need to find it amongst a large number of other drawings - it was a strict no photos area with people pushing and swarming all over. Walking while looking up to the ceilings in this condition was not easy.

I'd say spend a whole day here to witness what mankind could so when they set their mind to it. If you are not into this kind of stuff.. 2 - 3 hours will see you brisk walking through everything. At the same time, you could also do Castel Sant'Angelo the fortress and tomb of Emperor Hadrian. Fred said that there is a tunnel from the Vatican for the Pope to escape here if the Vatican City was attacked.

I still say, do it leisurely and take a tour. It is more meaningful if you know the significance of what you are looking at. While it is impressive today, imagine how awe inspiring it was 600 years ago. I guess if I were a peasant and saw for the first time the Vatican City, I would not be able to doubt that God must surely exist to inspire such magnificence. Being an modern day agnostic, I am struck by how much religion can inspire such devotion, fear, love and bring a sense of hope, peace and at the same time cause so much hate, death and destruction of what is perhaps collateral damages for those that got in the way. Rome is incredible in such a way that it offers a brief summary of mankind's religious evolution. The classical Greek gods made way for the classical Roman gods made way for the Christian god - and the Christian church as evolved today as we now know it since what was the beginning of the Catholic faith. How short is our lives compared to what some of these monuments have seen and endured?

Area B - City Landmarks

Around the centre area of the map, you will find the famous landmarks which as mostly made famous because they were in one movie or another. So maybe it is worth watching them before going to Rome :)
Try La Dolce Vita and Roman Holiday.

Everything is walking distance and if you are  fast walker, you can easily cover them in 1/2 day if you want just a touch, snap and go. If you'd like to leisurely walk and shop and eat.. you can also spend a whole day to cover these sights. You will usually see all the usual hot spots highlight on your tourist map, but here are the popular ones once again:

i. Trevi Fountain (Italian: Fontana di Trevi)  

It's the site for many classical films. La Dolce Vita is perhaps was most people know or Roman holiday.
We were told to throw a coin for good luck so that we can return to Rome again someday - but the fountain was so crowded, we just looked around a bit and left. I found this tidbit on Wiki though:

Coins are purportedly meant to be thrown using the right hand over the left shoulder. This was the theme of 1954's Three Coins in the Fountain and the Academy Award-winning song by that name which introduced the picture.

An estimated 3,000 Euros are thrown into the fountain each dayThe money has been used to subsidize a supermarket for Rome's needy; however, there are regular attempts to steal coins from the fountain.

ii. Pantheon

This is the favourite of many history buffs. But if you are not into this kind of thing, you'd be wondering what the buzz is all about! This is a 2000-year-old temple which is now a church, the Pantheon is the best preserved of ancient Roman building. It survived as it was quickly turned into a Church in the 7th century and hence survived to this day. It then became an important burial place for Raphael and some kings. Not too shabby. But look out for the dome. Now that's quite the engineering feat in 120 AD.

iii. Spanish Steps

The 1953 film Roman Holiday made the Spanish Steps famous to audiences. Our host told us that the steps were actually designed by Italians and built by the French - but the Americans started calling it the Spanish steps and the name stuck. The Piazza di Spagna is at the base of the steps and there are some nice frescoes and a poor fountain called Fontana della Barcaccia (Fountain of the ugly Boat), house of the an English poet and lots of high end stores. So if you need to get your fix for some luxury goods, you can start here.

Be prepared for people and more people though... If you want to take good photos, go really really early... otherwise what you get is a loads of people and hardly any view of the steps... :)

iv. Piazza Navona

A nice broad square very good for pictures because of its large beautiful fountains (they didn't call it ugly this time) and you have many people selling paintings and you can get your caricature painted here too. This is also home of the Brazilian embassy.. I wonder what they did to get this prime location (?).

v. Piazza del Popolo

For centuries, the Piazza del Popolo was a place for public executions, the last of which took place in 1826. This seems to be also Fred's favourite Piazza for unknown reasons. Now around this area there are many high end shops, hotels and restaurants. It should be I think the more chic side of town.

Attractions include the "twin" churches of Santa Maria in Montesanto and Santa Maria dei Miracoli - they are in fact not identical and many attempts were made to make them identical but nothing seemed to work.. until someone succeeded based on a bit of optical illusion (memory for more details failed me). There is also an Egyptian obelisk (you wouldn't miss it as it look kinna out of place) that was brought to Rome in 10 BC - not so long ago eh?

vi. La Bocca della Verità (The Mouth of Truth)

If you know the movie Roman Holidays why not have a look. It is in front of the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, you will see a queue and its free, unless you'd like to drop some money in the donation box.

vii. Altare della Patria (Altar of the Fatherland)

The Altare della Patria  also known as the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II (National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II). This monument is said to be too pompous and too loud - which means it looks grand and you can take nice pictures. The monument holds the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with an 'eternal flame' paying tribute to soldiers that died after WWI.

 Other sites

Italy in general is beautiful, unlike some places whereby between 2 attraction there is a mass degree of plain-ness - with simply nothing to see. There is something to see, everywhere in Rome. Some more famous than others and those written here are just the selected few. There are many other smaller churches with long history and magnificent art which is worth visiting. For example the seven pilgrim churches. Most people have done St. Peters but not the rest. The Basilica of Our Lady/ Santa Maria in Trastevere for instance is one of the oldest churches in Rome.

Santa Maria in Trastevere

Area C - Colosseum-Forum-Palatine Hill (with Capitoline Hil)

In this area you will find ancient Rome. Rome has its origins on the Palatine.

The Colosseum is Italy's top tourist attraction and the largest amphitheatre in the world. I think it doesn't need much of an introduction. It is considered one of the greatest works of Roman architecture and engineering, it is built by the emperor Vespasian (ca. AD 69–79).

According to Roman mythology, the Palatine Hill was the location of the cave where Romulus and Remus were found by the she-wolf that kept them alive. Romulus is the mythical founder of Rome and it is believe that Rome got its name from Romulus. Recent excavations show that people have lived there since approximately 1000 BC. Seems that in the past, this was the 'chic-est' address in town.

The Forum was built in the marshy land between the Palatine and Capitoline Hills. This was the city centre of ancient Rome.

Now with the Palatine-Forum-Colosseum, you see is mostly ruins with some temples, arches, excavation sites. If history or mythology is your thing you'd recognise many names.. if this is not your cup of these .. you will see only plenty of stones... and you'd be checking out soon. So maybe if you have time and interest and not too much background knowledge, taking a tour could be a good option. 

The Forum
The standard entrance ticket to the Colosseum includes entrance to the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. All three attractions have separate ticketing entrances. We were given the tip by our host to buy the tickets at the Palatine hill, walk till the forum (you need not exit) then do the Colossuem- less crowded, easier walk. The ticketing counter at the Colossuem is the longest so you can avoid this by entering through Palatine Hill.

View from Palatine Hill

You can also do Capitoline Hill together with Colosseum-Forum-Palatine Hill. The English word capitol comes from Capitoline. It was the citadel of the earliest Romans and now a beautiful area where you can have a nice view of the city. You could also do Capitoline Hill with Area B but I find that it's logistically better with the Colosseum-Forum-Palatine Hill combi.

Area D - Borghese Gallery and Museum

We missed this, we simply ran out of time. We have 4 days. with 2 full days but we spent the last day which was a Sunday at the Mass - hey it is an interesting experience and now I can say i have seen the Pope and revisiting the city landmarks because it was so rainy the day before.

If you love art, this is reputed to be one of the best private collection in the world. So be prepared for a full day (which we could not). If you are not really into art, I doubt that you'd want to pay to enter an art gallery. Alternatively it is is raining to heavily for other sights, this could be a good alternative. But, it seems that you can't just go and buy the tickets. Tickets have to be pre-booked. To limit numbers, visitors are admitted at two-hourly intervals. You can call or do this online though.


1. Dress. You will be doing lots of walking, so a good pair of walking shoes and if you are expecting the season to be rainy - be prepared for it!

Observe the dress code for places that you visit - especially the Vatican. I guess sometimes it does depend on the enforcer but as I always say.. 'tis better to err on the side of caution. An example is on how different people may react at the Vatican museum, some rooms say no photography allowed, people were pretty busy with their cameras.. so I joined in.. but in another room the guards where going.. no photos.. no photos.. Sooooooooo.... just be aware of your surroundings and the rules.

Survival kit for rainy weather. Umbrella & Wellington boots
2. Stay. Staying is Rome is not cheap. There is a great deal of places to choose from. When in Italy most of my friends prefer to stay in smaller hotels or B&Bs. Most people prefer this homey atmosphere. But it all depends on your preferences. Areas close to the Spanish steps and Piazza del Popolo are undoubtedly more chic. We stayed in Trastevere which I liked a lot, there were many good places to eat and the whole area is more rustic, more lived in than the posher area of town. You are 20-30 minutes walking distance to most places. This is of course, close walking distance by European standards but may be far for those that hate to walk. Fred now also have a new fascination, finding places to stay on airbnb. This is basically people with private lodging who wants to rent you a room. If you like company, as people who are hosting are generally warm and loves company (enough to open it up to strangers) it could be a great way to know the city and its people. We stayed with Mario and his dog Guapo. He was of course lovely and the room prices as as he describe them - 'friendly'. 

3. Eat. Carbonara oh how I love thee. This very popular dish originated from Rome. Of course now there is many versions and one of the most passionate argument is 'to cream or not to cream?', I have seen friends argue if the Carbonara recipe requires cream or not. Now I can confirm that in Rome, it is usually just the yolk of the egg, pepper, cheese and bacon. It is indeed delicious... but I like the version with cream too (which I usually do at home.. and I use the whole egg.. so wasteful with just the yolk - says the Asian chic, unless I am preparing desserts that uses only the white of the egg, then all is perfect). Pizza is of course good. Fred loved the Nutella Calzone.. oh my god.. it is so so so.. rich... not my dish but he was still dreaming of it after we left. Of course, do try a gelato when in Rome, plenty of people will recommend you the best place to have it. 

Nutella Calzone
Here's a few recommendations we tried and I must say, it was good - I would not stay spectacular but good and not too expensive for such a touristic city. There are posh, fine dining experiences available in Rome aplenty, but with our tight schedule and also tight budget we just wanted to get a quick bite and leave.

Also, I believe (perhaps it is not true) but Italian cuisine should be simple. It should not be complicated in ingredients or process. It should be simplicity at its best bringing life to fine, fresh ingredients. Even in many Asian cuisine, when you have the good fresh ingredients, you usually do not need much seasoning or a laborious cooking process but simply being able to do justice to the ingredients you have.

So here is a list of what we tried (I left some out because I didn't take pictures and I have forgotten them, I will try to add them in later.. they might be in Fred's cam instead):

A random place we tried
i. Enzo - it is closed to where we stayed so we said why not... Food was not gourmet but rather it was hearty.. I think something you expected to be cooked by your boy friend's grandpa when you visit. The staff was very friendly, then again Italians are friendly.. but do book or arrive earlier. We went 10 min before opening and asked if we could just wait around as we finished our tour of the city, we did not expect it to be so full.. in 30 minutes the tables were filled on a weekday in Nov! 

ii. Pizzeria Pan'Unto- I like this place because of the person servicing us was just funny and charming like hell. My friend who is a priest for the Catholic church brought us there and said that he and his other fellow men of God eats here frequently. What is good about this place is the price too. The prices were only about 4 Euro each on an average which was very reasonable to say the least. We had pizzas, pastas, desserts and beer for 3 which totalled to what we had for 2 the day before minus the pasta!

ii. Dar Poeta- Recommended by our host, Fred liked this pizza place the best. He is biased because of the Nutella Calzone. I liked it OK. The place is very crowded though, so again, do go early. It's again located in Trastevere - because it was always raining and we didn't want to go to far! But it turned out that it has pretty hard to find, so do have it well marked on the map with some good landmarks before you venture out!

4. Getting around. Getting around the city, basically you can do everything by foot. If you had to walk, you can take the tram or the bus BUT this can prove to be difficult as the indication on the stops and routes are not clear and if there are any at all, it is in Italian. So, if you want to do this - you need the help of the people you are staying with or a guide book that clearly tell you what to do/where to stop. The tram we were supposed to take to the airport was not in service on the day we were leaving and we waited for a good 20 min before seeing a printed sign on an A4 paper somewhere that says the it is not in service - in Italian! Also print a map to find your hotel, the airports have no city map when we arrived and the small streets of Rome is not so easy to navigate around especially if you arrive at night!

5. Safety. Plenty of people warned us of pickpockets and cheats.. Be careful with your belongings, don't carry too much cash or anything precious and we were told many pickpockets are a group of young girls and we should be careful. While nothing happened to us, do be careful as the city of professional pickpockets and beggars must have gotten this reputation some how.

6. Planning. Book/buy online tickets to avoid queues whenever possible. Deciding what you want to do in advance will save you plenty of time, but if you are going during off-peak season - it should still be manageable. The Roma Pass is good if you intend to take public transportation around the city. Otherwise it covers for 2 spots which will still be less than what your are paying individually for the 2 entrance. Remember that you cannot use the Roma pass in the Vatican City. To book an English speaking tour for the Vatican City, book ahead online... as it tends to be full - there is plenty of other tour guides around and perhaps your host/hotel will be the best people to recommend you one! You can also book online Borghese Gallery and Museum or ask that your hotel call and book for you if you have any problems!

Have a lovely trip! ;)

Vatican Museum

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