ItalyFlying Flag of Italy

Vipiteno - Shaun and Alison - 1992
Alghero (Sardinia) - Andrew - 2001
Rome - Andrew - 2001
Sorrento and the Bay of Naples - Roy and Sarah - 2002
Trieste, Muggia and Venice - Andrew and Jacqui and their Mums - 2005

Map of Italy showing places visited  Map of Italy with flag

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Italy, one of the cradles of civilisation, is also one of the most vibrant and fascinating countries in Europe. From the Alps in the north to Sicily in the south it has an enviable variety of landscapes and culture.

Great Cities such as Venice, Florence, Pisa and Naples are the tip of the iceberg. There are also islands like Sardinia, Sicily and Capri, the Lakes of the North and so much more.

Then, of course, there is Rome - the Eternal City with it's unique monuments of 2000  plus years of history. Rome was always the final destination for 19th Century "grand tours" and not without reason - there is probably no other city in the world with a greater collection of antiquities.

But despite all this Italy is no museum, the friendly, open, emotional people and the greatest food in all of Europe make this country an irresistable draw.

Along with Greece, Spain and the USA this is one of the four countries that all 3 Raving Loony Team Members have visited.


Vipiteno - Shaun and Alison - 1992 Daytrip from Austria

Text and pictures to follow

Alghero (Sardinia) - Andrew - 2001

I had already booked my tickets to Rome in December when the World changed on September 11 2001. One of the consequences of this was a dramatic drop in airfares and Ryanair had an offer for astonishingly cheap flights. I couldn't really resist. So I went onto the Internet and found a flight to Alghero in Sardinia for £23.58 which is actually only £2 more than it costs me to get in and out of work every day!

Unusually for a cheap flight I had the luxury of an afternoon departure which allowed me to experiment with the Stansted Express train service. This was quite good but vastly expensive (£13 one way). I was also unfortunate to get stuck with an out-of-time yuppie type who regaled me with his tales of house deals he'd been doing that day. With some relief I fled the train at the Airport whilst he got off and waited for another train back the other way having got on completely the wrong train!

The rest of the journey was quite unremarkable, I checked in quickly and easily and (despite the rumours) was allowed to take my camera gear on board with no problems. The plane was a little delayed but the flight was pleasant enough, despite storms nearby (the first time I've seen lightning from a plane).

A slight rain was falling at Alghero airport as we walked across the tarmac shortly after dark. Surprisingly it took ages getting through customs (I got through in Russia quicker than this!), but there was no hurry because when we got outside we all found that no buses were run to meet the Ryanair flights (the buses all coincide with Al Italia flights) and there was not a taxi in sight. Eventually a taxi did arrive and I shared it into Alghero with a couple who were staying (they said) at the same hotel, La Margherita, which later turned out to be about the only place open in Alghero accommodation-wise. When we arrived at the hotel I was pleased to have pre-booked because the couple were turned away. I never did find out if they found alternative accommodation anywhere or ended up sleeping on a park bench somewhere!

I was on the third floor and the lift was out of commission so I dragged my bags upstairs, dumped them, and then descended again to try to find some food back in town.

Alghero isn't a massive place, so the hotel was only a short walk from the Old Town which is where most of the restaurants are situated. I wandered around for a while down tiny cavernous streets and eventually arrived at a trattoria on the Carrer Cavour which I settled on. I was the only customer and the service was rather terse. I couldn't work out if this was merely because it was out of season or because they wanted to close for the night. I had my first genuine Italian pasta and then left. I was tired and needed sleep.

The next morning I woke to a blustery grey sort of day. Having had the usual continental breakfast I ventured out into Alghero. The previous night I had wandered around and had thought I'd never found the centre of town, it turned out I had walked straight through it and it was just that no one was around. My first port of call today would be the Tourist Information Centre to see what transport existed from Alghero and what I could see and do. Sardinia was a bit of a mystery to me, even the guidebooks I'd bought gave few clues.

It transpired that one of the big attractions of northern Sardinia are the Grotta di Nettuno (Neptune Caves) on the nearby headland of Capo Caccia. These though were closed when sea conditions weren't good - and sea conditions weren't good at the moment. In the end the sea conditions never were good enough for me to visit ... it just got windier as my time in Sardinia progressed. I had had in mind to visit Bosa and Castelsardo both of which have impressive hill Castles, so I looked at the bus timetable. It was at this point that things started going a little off course. There were only two buses a day to Bosa; one at 6:35 in the morning and the other at 1:15 in the afternoon. Alas, if I went at 1:15 I would arrive in Bosa at about 3:30, then have to leave again at 5:10. It wasn't enough time to see the town. No buses at all went anywhere near Castelsardo.

Oh dear. The three things I had planned to do away from Alghero weren't available to me anymore.  Slightly perturbed I left the Tourist Information and went for a walk around Alghero.

The Bastione della Maddalena, Alghero, Sardinia, Italy

Just outside the Tourist Information stands the first part of Alghero's fortifications that I encountered, the Porta Terra Tower (which was once one of the town's gateways). Nearby is the bulkiest part of the fortifications remaining the Bastione della Maddalena, a chunky piece of masonry built, like all the fortifications, by the Spanish during their time in power in Alghero. Alghero, and much of northern Sardinia is Catalan-speaking. The Catalan Aragonese arrived in 1353 and stayed in power for several centuries. Alghero, as the nearest Sardinian town to Spain, was always the most Catalan town on the island and many of it's streets are named "carrer" rather than "via". (Indeed at one stage someone wished me "Bon dia" instead of "Buon giorno". The Aragonese strengthened the already existing fortifications creating a network of walls, bastions and towers of which a great many bits and pieces remain today.

View of the Old Town of Alghero from the Torre di Santa Erasmo, Sardinia, Italy

The most impressive section of the walls is that which goes from the Bastione della Maddalena around the sea front to the Torre de Santa Giacomo. This part of the wall system is still intact enough to allow you to walk around the bastions. The high point is the Torre di Santa Erasmo which allows some nice views back across the Old Port to the Bastione della Maddalena (see picture above).

From various places around the walls you get glimpses of the tower of the Cathedral, the oldest part of the building constructed around 1552. As I walked around Alghero I would find it increasingly frustrating that no clear view of the Cathedral could be had from anywhere at all. Something which later emerged as a pattern in Sardinia where the towns seemed to be squashed into the tiniest spaces possible.

Bastioni Marco Polo, Alghero, Sardinia, ItalyThe long and attractive Bastioni Marco Polo was tainted somewhat by masses of scaffolding (one of the penalties of going anywhere out of season it seems). As the tide turns waves come crashing into the bastions here making for some quite impressive wavescapes.

At the end of the Bastioni Marco Polo you reach the hexagonal Torre di Santa Giacomo (also confusingly known as the Torre de Sant Jaume and the Torre del Cutxos (tower of dogs after the strays which were once kept there)), the final part of the fortifications added in the 15th century, and descend to street level, although the fortifications do continue further.

Somewhat battered houses in the Old Town of Alghero, Sardinia, ItalyFrom here I turned into town and began to explore the maze of little alleyways and back streets that wind around Alghero. I began to see that this place was very poor and that the buildings were in a poor state of repair, big chunks of plasterwork falling off and peeling paint abounded. Underneath all of this, and the swathes of scaffolding, was a very beautiful medieval town.

I turned onto the "main road" of Alghero, the tiny canyon-like via Carlo Alberto which runs from the waterside to the Piazza Civica which is the closest thing Alghero has to a heart.

A little way down this street you come to a small square (the Piazza Ginnasio) one side of which is taken up with the bulky St. Michele's Church which looks unimpressive, if ancient, from the front but is best seen from a distance when the glorious dome can be seen, which is decorated with geometric patterns of coloured tiles. The Church dates back to 1612.

Not much further down the street you come across Alghero's other historic church, St. Francesco, which apparently has the most perfect Catalan cloister in the world (alas, the church was not open in November). This church is even older dating to the 14th century. From the outside the church is rather plain and so squashed into such a small space that it is hard to get any impression of its shape.

The Cathedral Tower in Alghero seen from via Principe UmbertoI turned off the "main street" for a little while and headed into the tiny back streets. The previous night I had seen a building with doric columns on it's front and had assumed that this was the Theatre I had seen on the maps. I arrived at the small square where the Theatre was situated and discovered that the Theatre was in fact a rather more ancient-looking square fronted building (the edge of which can be seen on the photo to the left). To the left of the Theatre another alley-like street gives one of the few good views that can be had of the Cathedral of Alghero, buried amongst buildings almost as tall you can get a good view of the Bell Tower from here, which is the oldest part of the building.

I hoped that I would get a nice clear view from somewhere - a nice open piazza or something similar, but nothing was available. The porticoed building I had seen the previous night turned out to be the entrance to the Cathedral, but it wasn't open (for rennovation purposes). In fact in all my time on Sardinia I didn't get inside one single church!

Not far from the entrance to the Cathedral is the "main square" of Alghero, the Piazza Civica, not so much a square as a slightly-wider-than-usual street. Things were just starting to shut down for siesta (and it transpired that the Sardinian's take their siestas seriously ... everything is shut for 3-4 hours). I consulted my bus timetable, where could I get to ... ?  Sassari? Bosa? No, both required more time than I had today.  What about Porto Torres?  It is the main port for boats from Corsica, and only 40 minutes away. The guidebook was non-committal.  I thought I'd give it a go.

So some while later I was on a very comfortable coach travelling through scrubby and very poor farmland. A torturously indirect journey later the bus began to travel through an excessively ugly collection of chemical works and factories. This was the outskirts of Porto Torres. The bus dumped me at the Port Terminal and I wandered into town looking for some sign of life.

Now, Porto Torres was the main Roman settlement on the island, it has an ancient church, some Roman remains and should have been bustling with people from the boats, even during the siesta. So I was very disappointed to find it more abandoned than the Marie Celeste (but considerably less interesting).  The church, the Church of St. Gavino, was certainly old and quite attractive (although plain), but it was in a rather rough looking part of town and was shut tighter than gnat's nether-regions. Oh well, thought I, I'll give the Roman remains a try. These were quite a walk away through more backstreets and were ill-kept, overgrown remains in a small field next to the railway line. The small museum was shut. Everything in Porto Torres was shut. Even the tiny fortified tower by the Port was fake-looking (being painted a sort of dusk-pink) although perfectly genuine and erected by the Aragonese. I sat in the vague sunlight and proof-read part of the book "Chill" to which I am a contributor. I went and had a coffee. Finally a few shops opened and I went shopping. I bought my only badge of the trip and then a cork-covered bottle of the local plonk, Mirto (made from myrtle).

Then I waited for the bus to take me back to Alghero having been spectacularly unimpressed with Porto Torres.

Back in Alghero I headed for my hotel to spend a few hours waiting for food places to open. There I studied my bus timetable and realised that Bosa just wasn't going to happen. So perhaps the next day I could visit the second largest town on Sardinia, Sassari. At about 8:30 I wandered back into town to find an eatery. I ended up in one in via Principe Umberto, near the Theatre. In there I got chatting to a fellow English guest who was at the other end of his stay on Sardinia. He too had found the public transport situation prohibitive and had even resorted to hiring a bike. We exchanged a few tips and shared the remainder of his bottle of wine before being given a free sample of the local equivalent of beaujolais nouveau by the proprietor of the trattoria ... it was probably the closest thing I experienced on Sardinia to the friendliness I expected from the Italians.

The next day, having abandoned any idea of reaching Bosa, I decided instead to go to Sassari, the largest town in northern Sardinia. I awoke to pounding rain, which eased off during breakfast although it remained cold and grey for the rest of the morning. The bus journey was quite long, although I'm sure it took the most circuitous route it could.  Eventually it pulled up in Sassari's distinctly unlovely bus station. Across the road is the church of Sta. Maria di Betlem, a 12th century church that was heavily and clumsily rebuilt in the 18th and 19th.

I was heading initially for the Museum Sanna, which is an archaeological museum and contains a large number of exhibits from the Nuraghic Culture which occupied Sardinia before the Romans arrived. The Museum is at the opposite end of town from the bus station (naturally), but was worth the walk as it contains some excellent exhibits from Sardinia's pre-history and right through to the Roman period.

The Piazza d'Italia, Sassari, Sardinia

I then walked back into the centre of town happening upon the main square, the Piazza d'Italia which is dominated by the government building which stands down one side. Despite the chill weather this was probably the most "Italian-looking" place I found in Sardinia.

The Fountain del Rosella, Sassari, SardiniaSassari is not the prettiest town, away from the small old town it is mostly modern apartments many of which are run down. Nestling amongst building works and underneath a huge road bridge is the Fountain del Rosello. It was built in the 1600s by Genoese artists at the foot of a broad set of steps (which are now overgrown). At the time it was on the edge of town and the view down the valley must have been pleasant. Now it is incongruous in the extreme and seems stranded. Nearby is an old water conduit that once brought water to the town, but now only exists for the fountain to drain into, this disappears underground through a ragged stone cut hole.

Back into the centre of town for the main attraction of Sassari, the Cathedral of St. Nicholas. This is a mighty building whose size cannot easily be realised because - as is the way on Sardinia it seems - it is squashed into a tiny space which does not allow you to get back far enough away from it to see it's entirety.

Sassari Cathedral, SardiniaAt the heart of this massive building is a Romanesque Church, of which the bell tower remains fairly unmolested, but the striking thing about the Cathedral is the facade which is intricately and elaborated carved. This is quite literally a facade, being a completely flat frontage tacked onto the rest of the building. Sadly the Cathedral would prove to be yet another Sardinian church that was shut for the winter so I could only admire it from the outside.

Having visited the Cathedral Sassari had run out of attractions, I had a coffee and a sandwich and then wandered down through the rabbits warren of the old town back to the bus station. However, I was faced with a two hour wait for the next bus so I decided to try for the train station instead (Sardinia has a rail network, it just isn't fast or particularly extensive).

I was in luck, a train was leaving in just 35 minutes. I bought a ticket and had another coffee. Eventually the tiny but very noisy diesel train pulled up and I headed back to Alghero. I was quite pleased I took the train as it trundled through some quite dramatic scenery with the track seeming to be attached by sheer willpower to the edge of a river valley for a good deal of the trip. By the time it rumbled into Alghero darkness had fallen.  Alghero station, sadly, is not very close to the centre of town and I found myself wandering completely lost for sometime before eventually stumbling upon a landmark I could recognise and, with some relief, I arrived back in the old town.

Alghero Harbour in the evening

That evening I dined at a restaurant on the seafront and got chatting to a woman who turned out to be Fillipino. We then wandered through the old town and ended up at a bar on the town ramparts trying Mirto (which tastes like cough syrup with a bit of extra kick). She then decided we should try to find the local nightlife ... surprisingly we found it, a live group playing pretty good blues sounds. We parted at about 1:00 am and I didn't see her again.

Capo Caccia headland with lighthouse, Sardinia, ItalyThe following morning it was raining rather hard again, but I decided to take a chance and head out to Capo Caccia, the headland north of Alghero on which the Grotta di Nettuno is situated. I wasn't expecting the caves to be open (and I wasn't to be pleasantly surprised by this happening) but had heard that it was worth the trip out there anyway for the views (and I had almost run out of interesting places reachable by public transport). The bus left at about 10 am and seemed to travel around in circles for about an hour (no one got on or off anywhere but either end of the journey!). Eventually the road began to take on that "road that goes nowhere" feel, it got smaller and windier (and indeed windier too!). Then suddenly we reached the end of the line and myself and the two Japanese girls who were the only other passengers disgorged at the Capo Caccia car park.

The actual end of the headland, which is crowned by a lighthouse, if off limits as a military zone (presumably as it is one of Italy's westernmost points). This is a bit of a shame as without the caves being open it is one of the few definite things to see here. I could see why the caves weren't open as the only way in is down a rather precarious looking stairway cut into the cliff face.

View looking back from Capo Caccia, Sardinia, Italy

The two Japanese girls headed straight for the café (which was shut), but I decided to walk back along the headland a little to a viewpoint I had been told (by the English chap in the restaurant a couple of days ago) was worth a look.

Andrew near Capo Caccia, Sardinia, ItalyI was treated to some of the best views I had had of Sardinia as I walked along and for probably the first time began to think that Sardinia wasn't such a bad destination after all, having been a little disappointed with all I'd seen so far. Some of the cliffs around the Capo are very vertical indeed and there are some dramatic vistas, plus the weather had cleared up and the sun was beaming down upon me.

After a while I had to wander back to the car park (where our coach had been joined by a couple of cars). The café still wasn't open but I dare not miss the bus - it was the only one there was today! The journey back seemed even longer and wound on and on forever. We got back to Alghero at about 1 o'clock ... oh great, I thought, so everywhere will be shut tight.

The Old Port at Alghero, Sardinia, Italy

To my surprise the bar I had visited with the Fillipino woman the night before was open and serving drinks and (very) light snacks. So I sat and read there until the sun disappeared behind the back of the buildings and things started getting a bit chillier.

Dramatic seascapes off Alghero, Sardinia, ItalyI followed the sun around the Ramparts, sitting a while here and there, chilling out (it was siesta time after all). Gradually the wind began to pick up and I started noticing dramatic seascapes and waves crashing heavily against the walls.

Having sat for a while on the Torre di Santa Erasmo until the sun sank beneath the buildings and the wind picked up to seriously blustery.

I carried on around the Ramparts and got some spectacular views of the low sun slanting down through the clouds and glinting off the turbulent waters which were crashing into (and in some places over) the Ramparts where they met the sea.

Then I headed back to my hotel to shower and pack for tomorrow before venturing out later in the evening for my last meal in Sardinia by which time it was raining hard once more emptying the streets even more than they were empty anyway.

My flight didn't leave until afternoon, so I had saved a short trip for this morning. Before the Romans arrived on Sardinia there was a civilisation known as the Nuraghic (after the fortified villages or Nuraghi which they built). The culture flourished from 1800 to 500 BC, although in a few places they lasted a little longer.

The Nuraghe of Palmavera, Sardinia, ItalyThe remains of their buildings, particularly the Nuraghi, dot the whole island and there was one within reach of Alghero, the Nuraghe de Palmavera which is about 8 kms north of Alghero and about 2 kms from the nearest bus stop in the little town of Fertilia. So I walked along a cyclepath next to the road which eventually leads to Capo Caccia; as I walked the weather began improving until it became quite warm - the warmest it had been during my whole stay on the island.

Eventually I arrived at the Nuraghe and was pleased (and relieved) to find it open. It was also the only entrance fee I paid during my whole stay! I was provided with a small leaflet explaning some of the history of the site, which is not merely the central Nuraghic fortified tower (which is approximately trefoil in shape with three main circular chambers (one of which is still roofed over) leading off a small central chamber, but also a whole series of mostly circular structures which are believed to be the remains of huts.

The Nuraghe of Palmavera, Sardinia, Italy

The oldest parts of the Tower date from the 15th to 10th centuries BC, the Tower was enlarged in the 9th century BC and the village began to build up around it. The final building phase was from the 9th to 8th centuries BC when it reached it's current size, with approximately 50 huts plus the Tower. The whole thing was destroyed in a huge fire in the 8th century which seems to have ended it's occupation before the Romans even arrived.

The Lion of St. Mark Column, Fertilia, Sardinia, ItalyYou can climb to the top of the Tower for some excellent views of the complex. The Nuraghe was without doubt the most interesting thing I saw on Sardinia, and just about the only thing that was uniquely Sardinian.

Then I headed back down the 2 km walk to Fertilia.

Fertilia was founded in 1936 as a "perfect Fascist town" (in the manner of all extremist regimes the Italian Facists founded a large number of towns in the hope that the people might actually like living in them). Fertilia was meant to be the rival port to Porto Torres, but despite being given a massive harbour it never took off and today is a small satellite town of Alghero which out of season seemed almost deserted, like the relic of a best-forgotten past (which in many ways it is).

That said, one can't help but admire the scale of Mussolini's ambitions. The Church of San Marco is a large and dominating presence and is actually quite an attractive building in a bulky unsubtle sort of way. The seafront has a statue of the Lion of St. Mark sitting on top of a tall column, and a few very typically chunky Fascist sculptures adorn some of the buildings.

Fascist Sculptures in Fertilia, Sardinia, ItalyI spent about half an hour in and around Fertilia, partly out of mild interest (as I'd never seen a Fascist town before) and partly in an effort to find someone or something to do! Then I turned around from watching the sea and the brooding clouds which seemed to be gathering over Alghero on the other side of the bay when I spotted my bus trundling into the main square in front of the church.

If I missed this I would be stuck in Fertilia for another 45 minutes ... I didn't think I could quite stand that so I found myself running for the bus.  Panting I climbed aboard and then, inevitably, we sat there for about 10 minutes. Eventually the bus set off and I was back in Alghero for around 1 pm.

I decided to try and find somewhere to have a cup of coffee and may be a snack and, typically, on my last day in town found a decent place that was open during the dead hours of the siesta. I had an unhurried cappucino and sandwich and then set off around the Town Ramparts for one last time, heading back to my hotel.

As before the weather seemed to be closing in and the wind picking up considerably. Then it was back to my hotel to pick up my bags and a squeeze onto the tiniest bus you could imagine trying to take everyone back to the Airport ... a journey that wasn't what you'd call comfortable.

Waves crashing against the Torre dell'Espero Real, Alghero, Sardinia, Italy

The trip out of the airport was as convoluted as the one into it had been, being sent from one room to another to yet another before finally being able to board the flight which was pretty bumpy (someone seemed to have put speed bumps into the air).  The remainder of the journey home was nothing spectacular, a bit like Sardinia itself which was interesting, a little different, but hardly a good introduction to Italy.

Rome - Andrew - 2001

For someone with an undying love of all things pasta it was a considerable gap in my itinerary of European countries that I hadn't yet visited Italy. So in late summer I decided that I would make my pre-Christmas break for the year to Rome, the Eternal City. Not long after I booked it I got the cheapest of cheap flights to Alghero in Sardinia and suddenly I was going to Italy twice in two months!

I had been slightly disappointed to find that Sardinia was not very "Italian" as I had imagined "Italian" to be, so it was with slight trepidation that I headed to Rome, hoping that it wouldn't too prove a disappointment. I was to be more than pleasantly surprised and relieved.

My trip started at an obscene time in the morning driving through frankly awful weather conditions to Stansted (so bad was the weather that signs were nearly invisible and I missed the turn off to the Terminal twice). Not envying my father the drive home I got on the plane (which was almost on time for a change) and we headed down across Europe, the skies opening over the Alps to treat us to some wonderful views.

I was flying into Ciampino airport which is south of Rome and so subsequently got a wonderful aerial view of the City, easily making out the Colloseum, St. Peter's and the "Vittoriano" Monument (known to most of the world as "The Wedding Cake"). Go, with whom I was flying, were laying on a coach into the City which drops you off at the Termini Station.

The Colloseum, Rome

As usual I had booked accommodation beforehand, this time at the Hotel Sortino not that far from the station. I yomped down to the correct road, walked up it once, back down it again and then asked someone where the Hotel was. They pointed me to an unmarked door with an intercom buzzer next to it marked (in very small letters) "Sortino". I pressed this repeatedly and got no reply. I went to have a coffee. I came back and tried again and still had no reply. So I thought, bugger this, and went to try and find another place to stay. It was perhaps lucky that I was travelling out of season as I found my alternative accommodation fairly easily, at the Hotel La Villetta.

The Colloseum, RomeHaving checked in I walked down to the Colloseum which stands at one end of the central part of Rome. It was about 3:30 by now and the sun was getting quite low in the sky already, so I decided not to go inside the Colloseum until the following day. I contented myself with wandering around the outside, at which point I got accosted by a bunch of men dressed as ancient Romans one of whom took my camera and took my photograph with them (with a Roman helmet dumped on my head) and they then proceeded to charge me for it. It was an early indication that the people in Rome are quite well versed in the ideas of fleecing any passing tourists!

One of the first things that strikes you about the Colloseum apart from it's sheer size is that it stands in a sort of natural bowl of land and is overlooked on all sides by roads and the Palatine Hill, on photos it always appears to stand in splendid isolation like, for instance, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. This means it is very hard to get far enough away to photograph the whole thing.

Andrew dressed up as a Legionary outside the Colloseum, RomespaceThe Colloseum plus low sun, Rome

I wandered up to the entrance to the Forum but found it shut and then as the temperature dropped treated myself to a pair of gloves before heading into the centre of town. This took me along the via dei Fori Imperiali with the ruins of the Forum on either side of it and terminating by Trajan's Markets and the massive white edifice of the Monument to Victor Emmanuel (Il Vittoriano), so universally despised by the Romans and called "The Wedding Cake" or less fondly "The Typewriter". Unfortunately, considering it goes through the most historic area in the whole of Europe, the via dei Fori Imperiali is a massive multi-lane road full of thundering traffic driven with that inevitable Italian style (i.e. madly with one hand on the horn and the other waving angrily in the air). The road terminates in a massive roundabout type of thing where traffic screams around the corner in front of the Wedding Cake and heads off in about six different directions. I stood at the foot of the steps of the Wedding Cake and looked at the traffic, feeling the blood slowly draining away as I contemplated having to cross this maelstrom.

The Monument to Victor Emmanuel known as "The Wedding Cake", Rome

Eventually you see that the locals just walk out into the road in the hope that cars and scooters will swerve around them. This the cars and scooters generally seemed to do, although there was much sounding of horns and gesticulating as you would expect. So you wait for a person who looks local to take the plunge and follow along immediately behind them like a duckling and reach the other side breathing a sigh of relief. After a couple of times you begin to work out methods of not having to cross this road if at all possible!

Across from this chaos of motor vehicles starts the main road of central Rome, the via del Corso which runs straight through the centre of town. As long as you stick on the via del Corso you won't get lost, the moment you start to stray from it - particularly towards the Campo del Fiori (the oldest part of town) you are likely to find yourself lost amongst a maze of tiny, erratically twisting little alleys and streets which seem to follow no sensible plan. It amused me slightly to see SPQR (something I always associated with banners) on rubbish bins and drain covers, but then this was Rome - everything here was Roman no matter how old it was! I was going to have to start thinking in terms of Ancient Roman rather than just Roman as I would at home.

One of the joys I discovered about visiting Rome in December is the profusion of hot chestnut sellers offering big juicy and tasty chestnuts for a reasonable price (except the one at the top of the Spanish Steps it turned out who was expensive and gave less chestnuts). I had some chestnuts every day of my time in Rome as they have always been one of my favourite foodstuffs.

The Trevi Fountain after Dark, Rome, ItalySo filling my face with chestnuts I took the plunge and headed off into the side streets. To my surprise I came across the Trevi Fountain, not so much a fountain as a building with a fountain stuck to one side of it. I then began thinking about food, it had been a long day and I hadn't really intended to wander this far. I crossed the via del Corso and thus made a mistake because I ended up aimlessly trundling around the streets between here and the Tiber totally lost. At one point I found the Pantheon and decided this would be a good place to find somewhere to eat, which I did consuming my first pasta of the trip. Then I tried to find my way back out again. Having arrived at the Pantheon for the second time after this I began to get a bit frustrated at not finding my way around. Then suddenly I was back on via del Corso and I began the long walk back to my Hotel.

The next day I arose to a rather disappointing breakfast and then retraced my steps of the previous day walking down to the Colloseum. This time I was going inside.

The Colloseum, Rome, Italy

The sun was out again and it looked like being another lovely sunny day. After a small queue (it's always a good idea to arrive at these places very early) and paying the surprisingly reasonable entrance fee (15,000 Lire as I remember it - about a fiver) I walked through the arches and into one of the most amazing buildings on the planet. The sheer massiveness of the Colloseum belies it's 2000 year old age as does the amount of brickwork (most of which is perfectly genuine Ancient Roman).

A brief bit of history then, the site here was once swampy land sandwiched between the Palatine and Esquiline Hills, after the Great Fire of 64 AD the area was part of Nero's massive Domus Aurea which was subsequently dismantled by Vespasian, Trajan and Titus. It was Vespasian, great man of the people that he was, who decided to build the massive arena of the Colloseum around 72 AD. It was opened in 80 AD and had seating for 55,000. The design was based loosely around the ancient Greek amphitheatres such as Epidavros, but enclosed entirely with superbly easy access to allow the spectators in and out in quick time. A wooden floor covered the lowest level of tunnels to allow both human and animal participants in the games to come out of trapdoors and to travel around the arena quickly. Sometimes the Arena was flooded to stage mock sea battles.

Interior of the Colloseum, Rome, ItalyAs time progressed the games became more and more bloody and in 248 AD a massive tournament was held in which many thousands of animals and a good number of humans were killed, although by this time the habit of throwing Christians to the lions had been abandoned. It was last used around 483 AD by the Ostragoths under King Theodoric. It then became a fortress and then, sadly, a quarry before the neglect was halted and we were left with the magnificent building that stands today.

One of the recent additions is a walkway across the middle of the Arena on the approximate level of the original floor, this enables the visitor to see right down into the underfloor chambers in a way that was never possible. Another recent addition is a lift to the Gallery level. On the Gallery level is an exhibition about the history of the site which is worth a look before heading to the inside. Pause as you leave the exhibition and go onto the balcony overlooking the outside of the Colloseum facing towards the Forum for a superb view and then prepare for the wonderful sight of the whole of the Arena opening out before you in all it's glory.

The Arena of the Colloseum, Rome

I stood for a while in awe, looking out at this huge expanse of stone which was standing here before any Castle ever built, before virtually any Church ever built, nearly 2000 years old and still one of the greatest structures mankind has ever created. Not bad going at all. The trip to Rome would have been worth it for this view alone, but I knew that there was so much more to come; I was slipping from "enjoying myself" into ecstacy-mode.

I then set off around the gallery, photographing away to my heart's content. The Colloseum certainly didn't disappoint and it definitely earns its place at the top of every visitors "must do" list when in Rome.

A while later I descended again and left the Colloseum, although I would pass it on many occasions again before I left Rome - its fairly unavoidable!

A view of the Forum, Rome, Italy

A short walk towards the Capitoline Hill from the Colloseum is the amazing expanse of ancient ruins and temples which make up the Roman Forum. This vast area stretches underneath the via dei Fori Imperiali, although those parts of the ruins are still buried under the road, and emerges from the other side to form the much smaller Forums of Augustus and Trajan. The main Forum starts opposite the Colloseum at the Temple of Venus and Roma and stretches down to the bottom of the Capitoline Hill.

Rather than try to describe each thing in detail, I thought I would set out my visit to the Roman Forum as a walk from one end to the other ... so welcome to "A Walk Through The Roman Forum":


(By no means does this selection represent EVERYTHING that's in the Forum!)

The Temple of Venus and Roma, Forum, Rome, Italy

The Temple of Venus and Roma

This temple was built between 121 and 135AD on part of the site of Nero's great Domus Aurea. The Temple was designed by no less than the Emperor Hadrian.

Arch of Titus, Forum, Rome, Italy

Arch of Titus

One of three monumental arches in the Forum area, this is the smallest. It was built by Domitian who succeeded his brother Titus as Emperor in 81 AD. It formed part of the fortifications erected by the Frangipane family but was restored to its own splendour in 1822. It stands on a rise above the main part of the Forum and was the processional entrance from the Colloseum.

Sta. Francesca Romana, Forum, Rome, Italy

Church of Santa Francesca Romana

This handsome church stands beside the Temple of Venus and Roma. The original church was built in the 10th Century but has been heavily remodelled with the white Baroque front being added in the 17th Century.

On 9th March every year Romans flock to the church and park as close as they can to get the cars blessed, Santa Francesca Romana is the patron saint of cars!

Basilica of Constantine and Maxentius, Forum, Rome, Italy

Basilica of Constantine and Maxentius

This vast structure simply doesn't look like it could have been built in classical times, but it dates to 308 AD. The ceiling once glittered with jewelled tiles, but they were removed in the 7th Century and placed on the roof of St. Peter's.

The massive arches are 35 metres high!

Temple of Divus Romulus, Forum, Rome, Italy

Temple of Divus Romulus

One of the most distinctive buildings in the Forum, this circular structure dates to 4th Century. The Romulus it is dedicated to is not the one who founded Rome but rather the son of Maxentius, although recent thought dates it to the period of Constantine, possibly as the Temple of Penates.

Today it forms part of the Church of Sts. Cosma and Damiano.

Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, Forum, Rome, Italy

Temple of Antoninus and Faustina

One of the best preserved temples within the Forum it was built around 141 AD, dedicated to Faustina by her husband Antoninus who survived her and then re-dedicated after his death.

It is dominated by the Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda which has been built into its centre.

The two buildings together make up one of the most impressive structures within the Forum.

Temple of Vesta, Forum, Rome, Italy

Temple of Vesta

Standing just outside the House of the Vestal Virgins is the remains of the Temple of Vesta (pictured here with the three columns of the Temple of Castor and Pollux to the left).

This was one of the oldest Temples in Rome, but was rebuilt in 191 AD. A fire was kept burning inside the Temple which is one of the reasons for its frequent reconstruction!

The Temple and House of Vestal Virgins were closed by Theodosius in 394 AD.

The via Sacra passing through the centre of the Forum, Rome, Italy

Via Sacra

The via Sacra, or Sacred Road, was the great prossessional highway leading from the Colloseum (or possibly beyond) to the Capitoline Hill. The route was altered many times over the centuries and the precise reason for it being called Sacred are unclear. This section passing through the Forum is perhaps the best preserved.

Temple of Castor and Pollux, Forum, Rome, Italy

Temple of Castor and Pollux

This handsome remnant of Temple stands around midway through the length of the Forum.

The Temple dates to 484 BC, but was last rebuilt under Tiberius after the fire of 14 BC.

The building later became an office of government during the Republic.

Column of Phocas, Forum, Rome, Italy

Column of Phocas

This was the last structure erected in the Forum. It was most likely salvaged from an older building, but was erected by Smaragdo, exarch of Italy, in 608 AD to support a bronze of Phocas who was renowned for his cruelty. Smaragdo, however, redeemed himself by donating the Pantheon to Pope Boniface IV, thus ensuring its survival when it was converted into a church the following year.

The Curia, Forum, Rome, Italy

The Curia

The Curia, although it may not look it, is one of the oldest structures in the Forum. It was here that the Senate sat before the Empire. It was rebuilt on numerous occasions. Incredibly the building we see today dates to 283 AD!

It is the only structure within the Forum with a roof - so a good place to go if you are unlucky enough to get rain.

Church of Sts. Luca and Martina, Forum, Rome, Italy

Church of Sts. Luca and Martina

A church was built here in the 6th Century - known as the "Church of the Three Forums" because it is built where the three Roman Forums meet.

It was rebuilt between 1635 and 1664 in the Baroque style, and is most remarkable today for its position overlooking the Forum rather than being exceptional in itself.

Arch of Septimus Severus, Forum, Rome, Italy

Arch of Septimus Severus

The third of the three triumphal arches (the first is the Arch of Constantine outside the Forum), this is the middle one of the set both in age and size. Whilst the Arch of Constantine is dwarfed by the Colloseum this Arch which was built around 203 AD stands in splendid isolation at one end of the Forum where the via Sacra heads up the Capitoline Hill.

Temple of Vespasian, Forum, Rome, Italy

Temple of Vespasian

Passing through the Arch of Septimus Severus, the path to the Capitoline Hill passes two more temples before leaving the Forum. The first of these is this one, dedicated to Vespasian by his son Domitian in 79 AD. Only one corner exists to any great size.

Temple of Saturn, Forum, Rome, Italy

Temple of Saturn

The Temple of Saturn is the last major monument in the Forum before you pass onto the streets of the Capitoline Hill, it is also one of the largest and best preserved.

This is one of Rome's oldest temples, dating to 497 BC. It was totally rebuilt in 42 BC and then again in 283 AD.

The Roman Forum is a superb place in which you could easily spend most of the day if you were really heavily into antiquities. For those of us with a less keen eye for ancient temples it is a good place to spend a couple of hours, soaking in the atmosphere of the densest collection of ancient ruins in Europe. As you leave to walk up onto the Capitoline Hill, make sure you pause and look back across the Forum. From here you can take it all in, and even see the Colloseum poking its upper storeys above the far end. It is a wonderful sight indeed.

The Roman Forum from the Capitoline Hill

The Capitoline Hill was heavily redesigned by Michaelangelo, who designed the buildings down two sides of the Piazza di Campidoglio. It was on this hill that Romulus was said to have founded Rome and it was always the centre of Roman life. It is now the home to Capitoline Museums, Rome's finest, the Church of St. Maria in Aracoeli and, stuck to one end of the hill, the Victor Emmanuel Monument. Also, underneath the Hill is the Mammertime Prison (which I didn't have time to visit). At one end of the Hill is the Tarpeian Rock from which Ancient Romans were thrown as a form of execution.

I descended the wide steps down the other side of the Capitoline Hill and found myself once more in the unenviable position of having to cross the road in front of the Wedding Cake. I was heading for Trajan's Markets across the via dei Fori Imperiali.

Trajan's Markets

Trajan's Markets were built between 106 and 113 AD as part of a large building project designed by Emperor Trajan's chief architect, Apollodorus of Damascus, along with Trajan's Forum and Trajan's Column. Yes, this is Trajan's part of town for certain! All of this stands across the vie dei Fori Imperiali from the main bulk of the Roman Forum and is often overlooked as people hurry to go into the centre of Rome to find the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain.

The wide hemisphere of Trajan's Markets are, in their way, as spectacular as the Colloseum. This was the very first multi-storey shopping centre with each of the alcoves in the semi-circle containing space for a stall of one kind or another. The Markets stand to their original height, and it takes one by surprise to find a building near 2000 years old that stands to five storeys in height and can still be walked around as it could on the day it was born.

Cat in a window at Trajan's Markets, RomeIt took me a while to get into the Markets as, typically, I walked to the wrong end to try and find the entrance and ended up walking right around the back of the markets before coming back down on the left-hand side which is where the entrance turned out to be. Inside I was impressed by the almost perfect condition these buildings were in. If you wanted to you could start the Markets up again inside with no problem at all.

Having looked around the galleries and terrace I descended into the ground level area in front of the Markets and here encountered my first collection of Rome's famous feral cats. I had been told about the cats, being a cat lover myself, and had been disappointed not to find any in the Forum. The moggies here made up for it by being plentiful and friendly. I took the first of what turned out to be many pictures of the Cats of Rome.

I left Trajan's Markets and paused briefly to admire the world's first comic strip which winds its way around Trajan's Column telling the tale of two campaigns in Dacia (modern-day Romania). Trajan's ashes were interred at the base of the column and remained there until the 16th Century, at around the same time a figure of the Emperor was removed from the top of the Column and replaced by St. Peter. Unfortunately the Column was half-covered with scaffolding during my visit so I couldn't admire it as fully as I might have liked.

Vittoriano Monument (detail)My sense of planning had obviously deserted me. Having seen people wandering around on the steps of the Vittoriano I decided I'd go to have a look. This meant that I had to cross that road again. Before my visit I hadn't realised that you could walk all over the Vittoriano. In fact it really helps you to appreciate this building which is generally held in such poor regard.

By Roman standards, of course, it is still a newcomer to the scene, but it was started in 1885 and finished in 1925 so is now rapidly approaching its centenary. It still looks as bright and shiny as the day it was built - and therein lies its only real crime as I can see it. Most other Roman buildings are made of sandstone or brick, the Vittoriano is marble and thus will never age into the graceful biscuit colours of the rest of Rome. In a city with more monuments of this kind, say Vienna for instance, it would not look out of place.

However you cannot help but be hugely impressed by the scale of Giuseppe Sacconi's vision, even whilst you cannot help but be slightly amazed that he could not see how incongruous his building would be next to the Forum and Michaelangelo's work on the Capitoline Hill.

Vittoriano Monument (interior)Il Vittoriano was constructed to celebrate the unification of Italy and the first King, Victor Emmanuel II whose massive equestrian statue stands at the heart of the Monument overlooking the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier which was added after World War I. The further you climb up the Vittoriano the more you realise that this is one of Rome's highest points, views across the Forum and to Trajan's Markets are superb.

When you reach the upper terrace you can walk along the semi-circular "front" of the Monument and admire the gilt-work  frieze which is virtually invisible from ground level. At the other end of the terrace you get more wonderful views across the rooftops of the Campo dei Fiori area towards the great dome of St. Peter's across the Tiber.

Just when you are starting to warm to Il Vittoriano you sit down to rest on one of the plinths ... and a man blowing a whistle comes running up to you. You can't even sit down on the steps. This is the only building in Rome where men with whistles come running at you if you lean somewhere they don't want you to.  Not at the Colloseum, nor in the Forum, not at St. Peter's, nor the Trevi Fountain. It seems the only building in Rome that the authorities consider important enough to have guards is this much-loathed chunk of bombastic unsubtlety. Suddenly all your good will evaporates and you tramp back down the steps and leave Il Vittoriano to its only real practical use - as a landmark to stop you getting lost.

Back across the road again and down via del Corso. By now I knew the way to the Trevi Fountain and although it was still daylight my timing was still not so good as the Fountain is so hemmed in by other buildings that great shadows were falling across it.

Andrew at The Trevi Fountain

Anita Ekberg - sadly missing from the Trevi Fountain when Andrew visitedAlthough the Trevi is, and always will be, the most famous Fountain in a city with a great many fountains for me it is the fountain equivalent of Il Vittoriano ... too big, too garish and not particularly well executed. The structure was begun by Bernini but most of the work is that of Nicola Salvi who finished it in 1751. It is full of allegory and meaning but for most people it is just a place to throw your coins and get hassled by North Africans selling you junk. Both of these things occurred to me whilst I sat at the fountain, but I threw the coins in anyhow ... I would not want to miss the opportunity to return to Rome after all. The Trevi is certainly worth a look, but there are many nicer places to linger than here. It just isn't the same without Anita Ekberg playing in the water! Sometimes places can be too famous for their own good.

Not far from the Trevi, in Piazza Scanderberg (down a tiny tiny alleyway), is one of Rome's most unusual and often ignored Museums - the Museo delle Paste Alimentari - the Museum of Pasta Foods. As a great pasta lover I thought this should be worth a try. It began quite well with a couple of rooms dedicated to how pasta is made and its older history.

Logo of the Pasta Museum in RomeUnfortunately after that it descends into a series of displays of large pasta cutting machinery which is considerably less interesting, although at the very end there is a section on pasta-inspired art which is quite good. Also you are guided around the museum by a headphone commentary which in itself is a good idea, but I found the machinery and the commentary difficult to use and follow and gave up after a while, just letting it whitter on in my ears whilst I looked around at my own speed.

I was also disappointed that the shop was selling no pasta, and no souvenirs beyond postcards. There was also no restaurant attached - now there's a missed opportunity if ever there was one! Still, if you like pasta, it's worth putting aside an hour to see the museum, if nothing else it gets you out of the hussle of tourists for a while, even in December.

It was beginning to get dark when I left the Pasta Museum so I just went for a bit of a wander through the streets of Rome, keeping an eye out for promising looking restaurants (that, of course, I never found my way back to). Eventually I came upon the Tiber as evening fell. Swallows were flying along the river and the Dome of St. Peter's was reflected beautifully in the water.

St. Peter's and the Tiber by evening

I wandered back into the maze of alleyways and came upon the Campo dei Fiori (the old market place of Rome) which was almost empty at this late stage of the day, I then came across the Piazza Navona which is the nearest thing that Rome has to a "main square" (although it is oblong not square). I had a nice pasta meal in one of the trattoria that line the Piazza and then headed for the nearest Metro station I could find (which turned out to be Spagna, although I didn't see the Spanish Steps as I approached from the wrong direction and it was very late by now).

The next day I had put aside to be my day in the Vatican City. My first stop though was outside the boundaries of the world's smallest independant state - my first Italian Castle, the Castel St. Angelo.

In a city other than Rome the Castel St. Angelo would be one of the major tourist attractions, here it is often overlooked by people hurrying from the ancient ruins to the Vatican and yet the Castle started its life as Hadrian's Mausoleum way back in AD 139 and has a long and illustrious history.

Castel St. Angelo

As is so often the case in Rome none of the Metro Stations was particularly close to the Castle, the nearest being Lepanto. However, approaching from this direction rewarded me with some superb views of the Castle with St. Peter's in the background (see picture above), an indication of the close relationship between the Vatican and the Castle over the centuries. There is, in fact, a raised fortified passageway, the Passetto or Borgo Corridor which leads directly from the Vatican palaces to the Castle and was intended for Popes to use in times of trouble.

It is also worth walking onto the bridge immediately outside the Castle (not surprisingly named the Ponte St. Angelo) for some of the best views of the Castle (and certainly the best pictures). Once you pass inside the Castle you enter a small courtyard around the circular bulk of Hadrian's Mausoleum which was converted into the keep. Inside is a series of rooms, some empty and cold, others filled with tapestries and exhibitions. The glory of all this, though, is not the contents of the Castle but rather the views you get from the Rampart Walk and most of all from the terrace which is directly under the statue of the Angel at the top of the building.

The very best view of St. Peter's can be had from this terrace (see below). In the other direction you can see across the heart of Rome to Il Vittoriano in the distance. This terrace, incidentally, is the scene of the last Act of Puccini's Tosca when the heroine of the same name throws herself to her death on the cobbles below.

St. Peter's from the Castel St. Angelo

Rather aggravatingly my video camera chose this moment to start playing up, and although I still got some footage from the remainder of the day it continued to switch itself on and off as and when it felt like it. Grrrr.

To read more about the Castel St. Angelo, see Castles of Europe pages.

Once I left the Castel  St. Angelo I walked down the via della Conciliazione and into the smallest country in the world - the Vatican City.  <<Click the link to read about my visit>>

I had intended to spend all day in the Vatican, the morning in and around St. Peter's and the afternoon in the Museums. As per usual the guidebooks were wrong - the Museums were only open in the morning, so I had to come back again tomorrow.

The Spanish StepsSo I wandered back down to the Tiber and crossed at the Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II (some more excellent views of the Castel St. Angelo) and into the maze of central Rome once more. My weaving path took me eventually to what I later learned was Rome's premier shopping street, via Condotti, although I was more interested that it leads straight to the foot of the Spanish Steps.

I hadn't realised how much the sun was casting shadows until I got my photos of the Steps back where half of them were hidden in shadow. At the time I was slightly disappointed by them, they are nice enough and quite elegant, but I've seen better steps (the ones leading up to the Sacre Couer in Paris spring to mind). Like the Trevi Fountain I came to the conclusion that the Spanish Steps had only become famous through hyperbole of centuries of visitors. Apparently eating is not allowed on the Steps but that didn't seem to be deterring anyone (including myself as I bought some more roast chestnuts, although this time from the guy at the top of the steps who short changed me both in quantity and price). After a while I began to tire of people trying to sell me cheap tat - an annoyance that the authorities in Rome could do well to suppress a bit more than they do.

Babington's Tea Rooms logoLess known than the Steps is Babington's Tea Rooms which stand at their foot (to the left facing the Steps). These opened in 1893 and have been serving magnificent English "High Teas" ever since, although recently they have begun to serve such as pancakes with maple syrup presumably to please American tourists. I settled for tea cakes and Earl Grey and settled down to write some postcards in the lovely elegant surroundings.

After I left I demonstrated my lack of geographical knowledge of Rome. I was heading for a Concert I had seen advertised in a church near Repubblica Square and intended before then to visit Sta. Maria Maggiore, so I went to Spagna Metro and took the train. However, if I had walked from the top of the Spanish Steps I could have walked there more directly and taken in the Via Veneto district as I passed. Still, never mind.

Sta. Maria Maggiore is one of Rome's largest churches. Despite being covered in scaffolding it is still quite an impressive building although compared to many of Rome's churches it is functional and rather plain. It also stands on the edges of the less than pleasant area which surrounds Termini Station and so I felt slightly uncomfortable with my camera for about the only time whilst in Rome.

Fountain of the Naiads, Rome (detail)

I then walked back to Repubblica Square to have a closer look at the infamous Fountain of the Naiads which caused scandal when it was unveiled in 1901. This is because the four figures of the nymphs (or Naiads) around the perimeter of the fountain are very realistically engaged in cavorting with various animals!

Fountain of the Naiads, Rome (arty shot with starlings)The central figure was added 10 years later and I got a superb photo of this figure silhouetted against the evening sky with starlings wheeling around behind (see left).

A small book market stands to one side of Repubblica Square. I usually love book markets and this one was no exception, save its rather odd mixture of childrens comics and hardcore porn videos.

Across the road from the Fountain is the Church of Sta. Maria degli Angeli which is built into the fabric of the Baths of Diocletian. Neither were open by this point, so I decided to find the church in which the Opera Concert was being held.

This was the Church of Paul within the Walls (which despite its elaborate interior was the Anglican Church of Rome!) which stands on via Nazionale (although I somehow neglected to get any photos of the church itself).

The show was supposed to be in full 18th Century costume with a small chamber orchestra and three singers. It turned out only the ladies were in costume and some kind of argument had gone on before the show as the whole thing was performed with a weird tense atmosphere of sharp looks and muttered curses.

Still there was some good performances, particularly from the mezzo soprano who had a very nice voice and it was good to see some opera in Italy, even if it was slightly bizzarely performed.

I spent the next morning back in the Vatican City, this time visiting the Museums and the Sistine Chapel.

Then back into Italy and Rome, I wandered along the River front until I came upon the area of the Campo dei Fiori. Once again I had missed the daily market (in fact, I never did see it). I then wandered back through the Piazza Navona and up to the Pantheon - the last of the very important tourist sights I had to see in Rome.

The Pantheon, Rome, Italy

From the outside the Pantheon looks bizarre, an odd mixture of church, civic building and something altogether less obvious. Fair enough when you consider that it is the oldest place of worship to have been in continuous use in the whole world. It began life as a Temple to All Gods (a "Pan-theon") and was founded by Marcus Agrippa in 27 BC. This building was rebuilt by Hadrian and forms the central circular section of the building today. The great concrete dome - still the widest free-standing dome in the world and is made of one single piece of ancient Roman concrete, the hole in the roof providing the only source of light apart from the front door.

Interior of The Pantheon, Rome, Italy

The portico outside the building was also Hadrian's and just shows how much civic buildings have copied classical styles in the years since as it gives the impression of being the entrance to a Victorian Town Hall!

The Temple was given to the Roman Catholic Church in 604 AD - a move which kept it as a place of worship and preserved it to this day in superb condition. Standing in the centre and staring around yourself it is impossible to believe that this structure is over 2000 years old and contemporaneous to Hadrian's Wall in England which has survived the Millennia in slightly less good condition.

The Pantheon sits at the very heart of the old City and in almost any direction you find yourself wandering through a maze of tiny streets occasionally opening up into grand squares or long boulevards.

My next appointment was at another church, but on my way I found yet another, the Jesuit Church known as Gesù. This is one of the great Baroque masterpieces of Rome and the architectural style, particularly of the facade, influenced churches across the City and the whole of central Europe. I surprised myself by wandering around the corner from Gesù and arriving (once more) at the foot of the Capitoline Hill and Il Vittoriano. I decided to walk down to the River from here, passing the church of Sta. Maria in Aracoeli which sits high on the side of the Hill and the Tarpeian Rock at the back of the Hill from which criminals were (allegedly) flung to death as a form of execution during the Empire. Sitting hidden away across the road from the Tarpeian Rock is the Theatre of Marcellus, one of the most overlooked of Rome's ancient monuments. It is an amphitheatre in the tradition which led to the Colloseum. It dates from 27 BC and was built mostly by Augustus.

Theatre of Marcellus, Rome, Italy

Unlike the Colloseum, the Theatre of Marcellus is semi-circular (or rather was, but it was rather hamfistedly converted into a fortress in 13th Century and then a Palace in the 16th). The shape is still discernible but sadly the site is not open to the public so you have to be content with views of the exterior.

The Bocca della Verità (the Mouth of Truth), Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome, ItalyOnce you reach the River it is only a small walk to one of Rome's bizarrest "tourist sights" - the Bocca della Verità; the "Mouth of Truth".

Film fans will recognise it from Roman Holiday starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Legend has it that if you put your hand in the mouth it will bite down if you are not a truthful person.

The truth of the matter is that this odd adornment is probably a 4th century drain cover. For some reason it was set into the wall of the Church of Sta. Maria in Cosmedin when the portico was added in the 12th Century. I waited for a brief while for the queue of Japanese tourists to each be photographed with their hands stuck into the mouth, and waited patiently while they all filed back out onto their tour bus (not going into the Church I noticed).

I then gave into touristic temptation and set up my camera to photograph myself having my honesty tested! I tell you, it is very hard to type with just one hand left!! :-)

Andrew testing how truthful he is with the Bocca della Verità

Unlike the Japanese I decided to have a quick look inside the Church too. The interior was unspectacular but very dark, so it could have had more interesting features somewhere in the gloom. I left again and crossed the road, having a quick look at the two Temples which stand opposite Sta. Maria in Cosmedin. Then I made my way up to the Tiber, crossing the oldest bridge in Rome that is still in use, the Ponte Fabricio dating to 62 BC which crosses in front of Rome's massive domed Synagogue and onto the Tiber Island.

Ponte Fabricio and the Isola Tiberina (with Synagogue to the right), Rome, Italy

I was slightly disappointed with the Tiber Island, I guess I had been expecting something like the Islands in the Seine in Paris, a small community with shops and cafés, but found only a small square and people collecting money for AIDS victims. There wasn't much to see on the Island, so I crossed straight over the other half of the Tiber into the area of Trastevere (literally "across the Tiber").

Picturesque dilapidation, Trastevere, Rome, Italy

The people of Trastevere believe, with some justification, that they are the only "true" Romans left in the City. By which they mean that they live in the old fashioned way, make their living without pandering to tourism.

This gives Trastevere a very "lived in" feeling, it is less neat and pretty than much of the rest of central Rome and the shops are, in general, not full of T-shirts and calendars, but food and everyday things. However, nothing can stay isolated in the centre of a city like Rome for very long - posh restaurants are beginning to pop up and more and more people are wandering around carrying cameras instead of shopping bags.

Of course, I was one of these people, such is the cruel paradox of travel - the more you see the less there is that is untouched by visitors. But at the moment Trastevere still retains much of its atmosphere of grimy reality and "oldness", which is not the undeniable oldness of the Colloseum but an oldness of the way of life, a far more fragile thing to keep preserved.

Old Houses in Trastevere, Rome, Italy

Fontana della Tartarughe, Rome, ItalyFrom Trastevere I crossed the Tiber once more and wandered into the area around the Campo dei Fiori. Hidden in a tiny square which was at that time mostly dug up for some kind of roadworks is one of Rome's best known small fountains, the Fontana della Tartarughe (Fountain of the Tortoises). This dates to the 1580s, although the Tortoises weren't added until a hundred years or so later. Normally this is one of the more endearing fountains in Rome but the fact that it was surrounded by pneumatic drills didn't make it particularly pleasant and, to be honest, it could do with a damn good clean as it is filthy and in a very poor state. I did manage to get one photo of the Fountain without masses of machinery in the background though!

A short distance from here and you reach the Area Sacra, one of the less visited ancient sites of Rome, it does actually contain the oldest preserved temples in the City; Temple C, the oldest, dates to the 3rd century BC. It was at the Area Sacra that Julius Caesar met his end on March 15, 44 BC. Although these temples are in a much poorer condition than those in the Forum (they weren't discovered until the 1920s) they are no less important representing one of the few concentrations of Republic age structures left in all of the Roman Empire.

The Area Sacra (showing Temples A and B), Rome, Italy

They are also heaven for cats. Because the lower level is not open to the public the whole area has become an oasis amongst busy roads for Rome's roaming moggies and I got a number of excellent photos of the cats whilst I was there - see The Cats of Rome to see my photos.

Cat waiting patiently for some nice Italian Ice Cream from nice Italian Ladies by the Area Sacra!

It is just a short walk from the Area Sacra to the Piazza Navona, which under normal circumstances you visit to see Bernini's magnificent fountains, particularly the Fountain of the Four Rivers which stands at the centre of the long oblong square.

Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy

However, in the build up to Christmas the whole Piazza becomes a giant market selling everything from wonderful handmade nativity scenes to horrid plastic tat and the universal fake Disney balloons.

What all this bustle does mean is that you don't get to see the touts selling you rubbish until it is too late. A guy came up to me and asked me to stick out my little finger, thinking I was about to see some magic trick I obliged and he began to tie string around the proferred digit. By the time it was being wrapped around my wrist I realised that this was a scam and it was one of those "luck bracelets" for which this guy wanted to charge me an outrageous 20,000 Lire (about a fiver). I refused to pay this and demanded he removed the stupid thing, he wouldn't do this and got 10,000 Lire out of me telling me to "be happy" (I was happy before you turned up I thought to myself). We parted our ways - he having earned a cool 10,000 for three bits of twisted string, me having had my good mood shattered by yet another Roman street hawker. The bit of twisted string remained on my wrist for about two weeks afterwards - having paid for it I was going to get my money's worth, although the luck never particularly manifested.

This seemed to turn the mood of the day as my regular hunt for a restaurant became more of a task, so I ate quite early and went back to my digs in a rather grumpier mood than the day really warranted.

The next day was my last in Rome and the weather had finally become a little more December-like. It was quite cold and spatters of rain continued for much of the morning.

For a change today I was headed directly away from the centre of Rome, heading for the Baths of Caracalla which I had heard were quite a sight to see. On the way I passed St. Giovanni in Laterano and the Lateran complex of palaces and other buildings. St. Giovanni is, as it turns out, Rome's Cathedral (the Pope being Rome's Bishop). The Cathedral is really rather impressive, aping slightly in style the exterior of St. Peter's, it is massive and the interior has some magnificent statuary down the nave, featuring various Saints in particularly dynamic and interesting poses. As it isn't one of the obvious sights of Rome I found St. Giovanni well worth a visit.

There are a number of other historic buildings in the area. Immediately behind the Cathedral is the Lateran Palace where the Lateran Treaty was signed in 1929. Across the road is the Sancta Sanctorum, the "Holy of Holies" built by Pope Nicholas III in 1278. This is approached up the Scala Sancta (Sacred Steps) said to be those Jesus Christ walked up to his audience with Pontius Pilate (apparently brought to Rome by St. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, although they only seem to date from the 7th Century AD). The steps must not be touched by feet, so pilgrims ascend the stairs on their knees.

Baths of Caracalla, Rome, Italy

A small distance away you arrive at the Baths of Caracalla. Founded by the Emperor Caracalla in AD 217 these were the largest public buildings in all of Rome (no mean feat!) and stayed in use for something like 300 years until the plumbing was destroyed by invading Goths.

Roman bathing was quite a complicated affair, involving a Sauna-type affair, followed by a hot bath, a tepid bath and a cold bath before a plunge in an outdoor pool and a rub-down. The Baths are quite massive, and there are some beautiful mosaics still in situ. Unfortunately a good deal of the most interesting areas are roped off and you can basically only walk up and down a few pre-set pathways. For someone like myself who likes to get up close to things this was a disappointment. To be disappointed by buildings as magnificent as this says something about Rome ... there is just so much to see that after a week things which would otherwise excite and fill you with awe begin to become routine. When that happens it is time to move on and come back another day.

Baths of Caracalla, Rome, Italy

When I left the Baths of Caracalla I was surprised to find how close to the Colloseum I was, just across the road was the Celian Hill and behind that the Palatine Hill which overlooks the Colloseum and Forum - I was finally beginning to get to know my way around Rome. So it was only inevitable that my next stop would be a part of Rome I hadn't been to yet.

The nearest Metro to the Baths of Caracalla is Circus Maximus, named after the legendary "hippodrome" of ancient Rome which now little more than a long thin muddy field. I was heading to the Via Veneto district, the equivalent in Roman terms to the Champs Elysses in Paris - the place where the in crowd gather, or at least they did in the 1960s and 1970s after Fellini's La Dolce Vita featured the area heavily.

Tritone Fountain, Via Veneto, Rome, Italy

The Metro Station Barberini is at the foot of the via Veneto. In the Piazza Barberini where the via ends stands another of Bellini's famous fountains, the Fontana del Triton created in 1642. The effect of the fountain is rather destroyed by the plain buildings around the Piazza. Once onto the via Veneto itself, a proud sweep of a road leading up the hill towards the Villa Borghese, you are surrounded by large and elegant buildings dating from 1879. A number of these buildings house excellent restaurants and I had already decided to eat at lunchtime today as I wanted to get back in the evening to pack and get ready for the trip home the next morning.

Via Veneto, Rome, Italy

So I picked a restaurant more or less and random and settled in. As it was my last day I decided to push the boat out a little and go for the full three courses. I started with courgette flowers (fiori de zucca), which was something I had been curious about for ages. These turned out to be deep fried in a light batter and were very nice indeed, a sweet but not sickly flavour with a most unusual texture. My main course was tagliatelle with porcini mushrooms which provided me with one of those "pasta moments" - the pure satisfaction of eating the best food in the world. I followed up with a cheesecake and coffee.

Having eaten my fill I headed for the other most interesting feature on the via Veneto, the Church of Sta. Maria della Concezione. As a church it is unremarkable, a typical Baroque church of which there are a great many in Rome. It is the crypt for which Sta. Maria della Concezione is famous.

Crypt of the Capuchin Monks, Sta. Maria della Concezione, Rome, Italy

In 1631 the Capuchin Friars remains were brought from the old Friary (near the Trevi Fountain) and reburied in the crypt in Sta. Maria della Concezione. However, rather than a regular burial the bones were set out in elaborate tableaux, some wired together to form patterns, otherwise placed in poses. There are six separate crypts, the Crypt of the Resurrection, the Mass Chapel, the Crypt of the Skulls (pictured above), the Crypt of the Pelvises, the Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones and the Crypt of the Three Skeletons. Over time the remains of more than 6,000 souls found their way into this most bizarre form of church architecture. The last to be interred here were in the 1870s and today it is one of Rome's most gruesome and unusual tourist attractions.

Christmas Decorations in Rome, ItalyI had an afternoon to spend in Rome without any particular destination in mind. I first wandered down to the Palatine Hill, thinking to visit that as it was one of the few ancient sites I hadn't been to in the City Centre. Unfortunately the staff at the Palatine and the Forum were on strike that day (which would have been a real downer if I hadn't already visited the Forum - can you imagine!). So the Palatine Hill would have to wait until a later date.

Part of the way along the via del Corso is one of Rome's newer attractions, the Time Elevator. Essentially it is one of these films where the seats move in time with the action, a cross between a flight simulator and a cinema. Despite it being the kind of thing many dismiss as "just for the tourists" I rather enjoyed it and thought it would be a good place to start a visit to Rome, especially for children.

The advertising around the building mentioned Time Elevators in London and Jerusalem - although I've seen no sign of the one in London just yet.

It was time to shop for souvenirs, calendars, a parmesan cheese grater and some pasta - some shaped like teddy bears and some shaped like famous Italian buildings! - plus a few other odds and ends. I found myself back at Spagna and couldn't think of any better place for a snack to tide me over for the rest of the day than Babingtons Tea Rooms, so I went back inside and had another superb English tea.

Evening at the Spanish Steps, Rome, Italy

When I emerged it was dark and the ground was shiny with rain - looked like I had missed a fairly hefty shower.

The Vittoriano by Night, Rome, Italy

Happy with my purchases and that I had seen more or less everything I wanted to in Rome I wandered back through the maze of back streets around the Trevi Fountain and back onto the via del Corso, inevitably finding myself back at the busy road junction presided over by Il Vittoriano, which looks most impressive when floodlit of an evening, the white gleam of the marble being turned a more delicate ochre by the lighting, just for once making the Wedding Cake look like it belonged amongst Rome's honey-coloured buildings.

Perhaps predictably my last stop in Rome was where I had begun - the Colloseum. Floodlit with remarkable subtlety the sheer scale of the building is just as impressive at night as in the daylight. As I stood taking photos of this wonderful building I began to wish I didn't have to leave Rome the following morning. I guess all good things must come to an end.

The Colloseum by Night, Rome, Italy

So I awoke the next morning and looked outside. It was hammering down with rain. In the short journey from my hotel to the Metro I got quite thoroughly soaked and then again from Termini Station to the bus terminal just around the corner. I was still wet when I arrived at Stansted some hours later. Perhaps if this was how the weather was going to be in Rome I was leaving at just the right time.

I can't wait until I go back again ... Rome is everything you expect it to be and a good deal more besides - truly the Eternal City.

See Also Vatican City

See Also Cats of Rome Photos

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