This Autumn we were lucky enough to have another break in Italy, when Jim and I went to Rome for six days and had a wonderful time. Although it started off a disaster it ended up quite spectacular. On the advice of friends who had visited the Italian capital recently we booked an apartment in Trastevere. On the website the apartment looked amazing and we were very much looking forward to staying there but when arrived there, very weary after an early morning flight, we were bitterly disappointed. It was not the 'elegant apartment...restored with precious marble, excellent furniture and fully equipped kitchen' that we had been expecting. Instead it was a distater - damp, dank and filthy.
As Jim says the photographer should be winning awards, either that - the restoration took place 20 years ago. Anyway, we could not stay there so we contacted the letting company, whose solution was to 'send someone to clean the place' - clearly unaware of the scale of the problem. Whilst they tried to find us alternative accommodation we went out for a little wander strolling through the cobbled streets, right over the River Tiber, until we found ourselves at the bustling Campo de'Fiori a lovely old square with beautiful flower market. A spot where we returned more than once during our visit.
However, we soon found ourselves back across the river in the Vatican area as the apartment rental agency could not find us a room and after a bit of anxious phoning around we found the hotel Della Conciliazione on Via Borgo Pio. The room was only available for two nights but we were relived to find some only somewhere we could lay our heads that was clean and comfortable. So we got settled and then set off to explore the area around the
Piazza Dan Pietro with its rows of Doric columns and two great colonnades topped with 140 statues of saints is an impressive site. The immense square seemed almost surreal as it was a rainy evening and apart from a handful of tourists we were the only people there. We also had a chance to explore the area around the Vatican and Via Borgo Pio was itself very interesting with lots of shops selling religious items - even priests shopping for vestments! We finished our first day in Rome off with some lovely pasta and hot chocolate and pastries.
Next morning we set off to a cafe in Piazza del Rizorgemento to meet Chris Gritton my friend Anne's son, who hails from Glasgow but works in Rome. When he heard of our accommodation plight He swiftly established himself as our Guardian Angel and said that he would pull a few strings with the Scottish contingent in Rome to find us somewhere to stay and 'to leave it with him'. He also drew out a route for us to walk around some of the ancient sites and after agreeing to meet up for dinner in the evening we set off to investigate more of Rome.
We headed across the River Tiber at Ponte Cavour heading for Via di Ripetta to take us to Piazza del Popolo. Although not on our list of destinations we came across the Museo Dell'ara Pacis, which looked very interesting with lots of students sitting on the steps and some at work drawing the surrounding scenes. In the Gallery there was the most wonderful exhibiton Valentino a Roma, 45 years of style. The stunning display included gowns and accessories owned by celebrities such as Sophia Lauren and more modern day lovelies such as Halle Berry and Cameron Diaz. Quite something.
We lounged around the stairs outside the Gallery for a bit before heading on our way to the Piazza del Popolo, our main aim was to climb the stairs for the wonderful view of the Vatican, however, we did not quite make it to the top. The road up seemed pretty dangerous with no pavement and cars sweeping past at great speed - and we had yet to adjust to the hazards of the traffic in Rome. However, this large square is very impressive but best to go there when you are feeling sprightly - then you can tackle the climb.
We left the Piazza by way of Via del Corso, one of Rome's most attractive streets for shopping and cut off onto the fabulous Via Condotti for some high quality window shopping - this is where you will find all the designer boutiques. It also leads to the Spanish Steps - where we sat in the sun with all the other tourists. This is a beautiful spot but very, very busy.
Not far away you will come onto the Trevi Fountain, a wonderful spectacle, which you more or less stumble onto as it is tucked away behind some narrow streets. We returned here again to see it by night and it really is quite wonderful. Despite the crowds you can still find space to throw your coin into the fountain, which means that you will return to Rome again.
Back on Chris's route we headed down Via del Corso towards Piazza Venezia with the Victor Emmanuel 11 Monument and Palazzo Venezia this is a very dramatic junction and very busy. The first great Renaissance palace in Rome, it is of immense historical interest - the Palazzo was built by Pietro Barbo in 1451, who was to become Pope Paul 11. In 1806 it became the the headquarters of the French administration and the Victor Emmanuel 11 Monument was built between 1885 - 1995 to celebrate the unification of Italy. Mussolini used the Palazzo as his official residence and gave many of his famous speeches from the balcony. However, the Romans view it with some humour and refer to it affectionately asis the typewriter building. I thought it was wonderful with all it's vast statues shining white against blue, blue skies.
To the south of Piazza Venezia lies the Via del Fori Imperiali, a great avenue running down to the Colosseum with the ruins of the Roman Forum on either side. This was one of my favourite spots in Rome and we had great fun wandering the paths where Romans walked 2700 years ago in the great civic centre of the Western world. I particularly liked Palatine Hill, where the nobles and emperors built their palaces.
We also went to Campidoglio on the Capitoline Hill - a very lovely place and the views over the Forum are wonderful. Our last port of call was the Colosseum, which is massive and pretty astounding. The mock gladiators lent it a rather comical air but their entrepreneurial venture appeared to be paying off with crowds of tourists waiting to be photographed with them.
Jim joined the queue to go into the Colosseum and soak up the atmosphere but I decided to have a wander around and enjoyed watching a wedding party pose for photographs with the huge, ancient amphitheatre as their background.
After having spent hours absorbing all the fabulous ancient sites we were quite delighted and relieved when we managed to figure out how to get a bus back to our quarters near the Vatican.
In the evening we met up with Chris at a smashing restaurant off the tourist trail - Bravo Giulio on Via Varrone. The antipasti was so wonderful that I had neither primi nor secondi piatti. Chris had some great news for us; after making a few phone calls to his Scottish friends in Rome he had us sorted with some amazing accommodation. We were to spend two nights in the Hotel Forum, a wonderful location overlooking the Via del Fori Imperiali and then for our last two nights we were to stay at l Sole Al Pantheon. The oldest hotel in Rome overlooking the Pantheon at the Piazza del la Rotonda.
After a very bad start things were looking up.
We enjoyed our two days at the Hotel Forum with its lovely roof restaurant looking over the Forum. We had ample opportunity to explore the area and Stephen Hall, the manager of the hotel, who comes from Manchester, made us very welcome. It was in a great location with lots going on - including a huge political demonstration. But mainly it was just amazing passing by the ancient ruins each time we went out.
The Hotel Al Sole del Pantheon was incredible, we stayed at the executive suite and it was really lovely with a huge four poster bed and beautiful tapestries. The staff including Jo, the receptionist and the porter Andreas were delightful and could not do enough for us . We absolutely loved our breakfasts which were a work of art.However, what was most wonderful about our stay there was opening our shutters and was looking out of our window directly over to the Pantheon and this fantastic structure became one of our favourite monuments. Well, we were locals!
The square outside the hotel was very lively and even had a very attractive al fresco McDonalds. The Pantheon it truly amazing and you keep wondering how such fabulous structure could be build almost 3,000 years ago. We loved the area and enjoyed strolling through the lovely little streets with their fascinating shops and lively restaurants. We particularly loved Piazza Navona, an absolutely stunning square , with Bernini's Fontana dei Fiumi at the centre. The square is surrounded by restaurants and full of artists, people selling their crafts and entertainers. A perfect place for people watching.
We had a lovely meal there one evening at the Cafe Bernini and were entertained by a fabulous Edith Piaf soundalike and a male guitarist and singer who looked and sounded quite incongruous, as though he had popped up from George Square in Glasgow City Centre.
It was also very easy to walk to the River Tiber from the hotel. Our favourite bridge was the Ponte Angelo with all its beautiful statues by Bernini, each of the ten angels displaying a device of Christ's passion. We also walked further south to the Isola Tiberna, where we investigated the Jewish Ghetto. This was the area where jews were confined between the 16th and 19th century - it has a sad history and the spot is marked where the jews were rounded up for transportation to the camps during the second world war. However, it is now a lively and attractive area with lots of Kosher cafes and restaurants. There is also a beautiful synagogue.
Although a bit off the tourist trail we enjoyed our walk through the area and had one of our best meals there at Il Portico, Via del Portico d'Ottavia.
Afterwards we crossed over to Trastevere, again this area contrasts with the grand central area of Rome. It is the bohemian quarter, where residents consider themselves to be the most authentic Romans. However, despite the narrow, cobbled backstreets it has many fashionable restaurants, stylish shops and lovely churches - including Santa Maria in Trastevere, which is vast and very ornate.
We visited quite a few of Rome's wonderful churches and also liked Santa Maria Sopra Minerva a very unusual Gothic church on the banks of the Tiber and church near Teatro Di Marcello, which had the ancient ruins of the first church buried beneath the existing one. However, nothing can compare with St Peter's Basilica, which is just astonishing. We wandered there for hours and even climber the many, many steps up to the Cupella - the views across Rome were worth the arduous climb.
We saw loads but were very aware that there was lots we had missed so we took the tourist bus ride to check out some of the main highlights. The day we went on the bus ride was very hot so this proved to be a good idea as it was lovely relaxing in the sun and viewing all the beautiful places from the top of the bus. It also gave Jim a chance to take some excellent photographs.
We had a fantastic time - six days was not nearly long enough and there were many more places we would have love to visit. Jim saw some museums and galleries that I did not go too (I could not cope with the queue for the Sistine Chapel) - and I hung out in more cafes and shops. I bought myself a lovely leather bag and enjoyed relaxing and writing my postcards in the Cafe Argentina at Largo Argentina, beside the remains of four ancient temples - one dating back to the 4th Century. That's Rome.
We cannot thank Chris enough for working some magic so that we could stay at Hotel Forum and Al Sole Al Pantheon. We struck it lucky there.
Pat Byrne, November, 2007.