My October trip to Greece included a three-night sojourn in Rome, which came about when my original travel plans changed. I had planned to meet a dear friend from the States and spend a week with her in Positano on the Amalfi coast. When these plans fell through I was left with a return flight from Athens to Rome and a question mark as to what to do next.
I didn’t want to be in Positano without my friend, but I love Italy and I didn’t want to just cancel the trip altogether. I sat on the decision of what to do with this flight to Rome till a couple of weeks before I flew out to Europe. In the end it was the accommodation that persuaded me. I found an absolutely delightful boutique hotel near the Spanish Steps called the Relais Donna Lucrezia. I booked three nights there – the perfect amount of time for a little get-away.
The last time I was in Rome was in 1991 when I was 21. I was young and naïve, and I was on a very tight budget. I barely had money for food, let alone things like tours. I travelled everywhere on public transport and crammed in as many touristy activities (that were free) as I could in five days, often rushing from one famous location to another.
I visited the Colosseum for no more than twenty minutes in 1991 as I was pressed for time. Yes – it seems ridiculous to me too! This time I spent two hours inside and took an audio tour (as the guides were booked out). The Colosseum is one of those places that people know about even if they’ve never stepped a foot in Italy or studied ancient history. But to actually be there and contemplate the reality of people being brutally murdered there for entertainment was quite an emotional experience.
I also visited St Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel when I was 21 and was awed by both. It was a no-brainer to visit again, but this time I took a guided tour of both the Vatican museums and the Basilica – and it was great. Our guide was fantastic, combining history with fascinating stories, saucy rumours and funny anecdotes. It was a three-hour tour in very, very crowded circumstances but our guide kept us constantly engaged with the art around us.
When we got to the Sistine Chapel it was standing room only, with very solemn guards instructing people to not take photos and to be silent. Despite this there was a constant hum of people talking – to be expected in a crowd of several hundred people crammed in together. Twenty-six years ago, however, the crowd was so sparse that I was able to get a seat on one of the benches along the wall and I remember sitting there in quiet contemplation for nearly an hour.
Of course, the Sistine Chapel had yet to undergo its restoration back then, so this time the colours of the frescoes were significantly brighter and the images more striking. Despite all the differences, the one constant is that the Delphic Sybil is still my favourite part of the chapel ceiling. I couldn’t take my eyes off her!
When I was still planning my side trip to Rome, I found a fabulous website called Romewise, run by an American now living in Rome. It has a heap of practical advice for visitors and through it I not only found a couple of really good restaurants but also some great ideas for what to do.
For example, taking a food tour. There were different types to choose from but I booked a three-hour street-food tour through Private Guides of Rome. It was affordable and looked like a great way to get to know the old part of the city. I was blessed with a small group and a wonderful guide. We not only tried delicious food we learnt about its history. Our guide talked about the different locations we walked through, such as the Campo de’ Fiori and the Pantheon (which is actually my favourite place in Rome). He also pointed out how much of Roman incidental architecture is created from a mish-mash of materials taken from other buildings, transgressing time periods. An ancient column from here, some medieval bricks from there, and voila – a new building. We joked that Romans were the originators of the re-use and recycle sustainability motto.
Another Romewise suggestion was to go to the opera. By sheer luck my favourite opera, Puccini’s Tosca, was playing at the Teatro dell’ Opera di Roma on my last night in Rome. I decided to spring for a good seat and booked my ticket. It was expensive but so worth it! I actually gasped when I was ushered into my little booth and saw my view of the stage. I felt like royalty. The music was breathtakingly beautiful and the performances fantastic. I got so carried away by the emotional power of the music that I wept – three separate times! The whole experience was magnificent – the best thing I’ve done when travelling.
All up my little side-trip to Rome was a huge success. I was exhausted by the end of it – I calculated that I’d done nearly 20 hours of walking in three days – but also on a massive travel high. My short trip to Rome may have been a consolation prize for missing out on the planned trip to Positano, but I came away from it feeling like a winner.