My Rome post is long past due. We visited Rome briefly during the AS Roma vs Barcelona game, but did not venture much farther than the Piazza del Popolo. I had also been to Rome after my high school graduation in June, when the city was hot, sticky, and mobbed. This time, I made the trip with my friend Lauren for three nights in February- a wonderful time to go if you want to avoid all of the crowds. The temperature was pleasant with a coat, and even though it rained one full day, Rome’s museums kept us occupied in a mass downpour.
We took the 1.5 hour train from Florence to Rome, a simple and inexpensive way to travel. We stayed at the Hotel Villa Argentina on Corso Vittorio Emanuele, a great location as it is situated in between Vatican City, Travestere, and the Roman Forum/Colosseum area. Prior to our trip, we purchased tickets for a guided tour of Vatican City and a Colosseum/Palatine/Forum ticket, which enabled us to skip the lines at the major sites.
Lauren and I are runners, so we agreed the best way to orient ourselves around the city was to our own “running tour” in the early morning before the crowds. This was a brilliant way to get a glimpse of the major sights in sheer silence without having to weave around other tourists. On our first run, we ran past the Vatican, the Castel San Angelo, the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, and the Pantheon. I think we did more in one run than some people do in one day!
After showering, we made the twenty minutes trek towards the Colosseum/Palatine/Forum. The area was more awe-inspiring than I remember. From Capitalone Hill to the first glimpse of the Arco di Constantino, the monuments and architecture shaped by history leave you breathless with their sheer beauty. Despite it being low-season, the Colosseum was jam-packed, notwithstanding the fact that the signage to retrieve our tickets was confusing and misleading! We bought an audio tour, but had trouble finding the numbers that corresponded with the audio. This was my second time to the Colosseum, and personally I think one is enough. It is truly a magnificent structure, but the sight was too crowded for comfort. We spent most of our time instead at the Roman Forum/Palatine, which walks you through the daily life of living on Palatine Hill through a story of old government buildings, places of worship, bath houses, and gardens. You can easily lose yourself for hours at the park reading each detailed description of all the excavated sights. Once it started to downpour, we spent a half hour in the Palatine Museum, which showcased media films to help you picture life on Palatine Hill in ancient Rome.
That evening we walked into the famed Travestere neighborhood. Although a popular area for tourists to drink and dine, it is also the home to local Romans. We walked through the narrow streets and found our way into the Basilica di Santa Maria di Travestere. The church was getting ready for Friday night mass, and we were lucky enough to sit through a small portion of the service- a peaceful and reflective experience for people of all faiths.
Our following morning run took us north to the park surrounding the Villa and Gallery Borghese. Unfortunately we did not buy tickets to see the Borghese Gallery, but it will be on my to-do list for my next visit to Rome. The park, however, is a gem in the middle of a hectic city, where you can find locals jogging and leisurely walking their dogs. We also saw the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, known for its Roman mosaics and gilded ceilings. On this same run (yes we do a lot!), we made our way west to look for the Domus Aurea, a large portico villa on our sightseeing map. We either saw a glimpse of it and was not impressed, or couldn’t find it at all. We are still not sure to this day whether the ruin we saw was the Domus Aurea as the area lacked proper signage. At one point we thought we found it, but really we were just staring at the back of the Colosseum!
Our afternoon consisted of a tour of the Vatican Museum. I am thankful we took the tour because our excellent guide was able to point out the major works of art in a museum that is overwhelming with masterpieces. Before the tour starts, she gave us a story of the characters/background around Michaelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. When you view the ceiling at the end of the tour, you can quickly point out the main angels, demons, and other important biblical characters. The other parts of the room tell the story of the Old and New Testament. Prior to leaving, we spent about twenty minutes viewing the inside of St. Peter’s Basilica.
After the Vatican Museum, we took a cab to the Capitoline Museum. We went near closing, when the crowds were sparse and we had entire galleries to ourselves. The Capitoline Museum contains archaeological artifacts from Capitoline Hill in ancient Rome. There are also ancient sculptures from Greece and Egypt. There are two wings to the museum connected by an underground tunnel through the famed Tabula, or ancient Roman archives. From there you can witness a view of the Roman Forum, which was eerily beautiful at night.
Later that evening, we visited the gorgeous Piazza Navona and entered the Sant’Agnese in Agone, a church in Baroque style that was perhaps my favorite of the entire trip. We also stepped into the smaller chiesa, Nostra Signora del Sacro Cuore. This smaller, simpler church is often overlooked by the larger and more beautiful one in the same square, but retains a more authentic feel. It felt more like a working place of worship rather than a museum.
In regards to food, we quickly found out that the hearty, fresh, and inexpensive Italian fare found in Tuscany did not apply to Rome. Most of the food establishments we passed were filled with sub-par sandwiches, microwaved pizzas, and boxed pasta entrees that were obscenely overpriced. That is why we purposely sought after Da Enzo in Travestere (recommended online), which exceeded our expectations. This cozy trattoria is located in a side street with little signage. Reservations were essential as the place was packed by opening time. The standout dishes were the cacio e pepe – a pasta with cheese and pepper sauce, and the Roman artichokes in a green pesto-like sauce. The pasta reminded us of a gourmet macaroni and cheese (but with homemade noodles), and the artichokes were so good we ordered an extra dish and had dreams about it for days. The dessert- a tiramisu and pistachio ice cream- were so fresh and tantalizing we could have easily eaten a second portion. Da Enzo is one my favorite restaurants in Italy showcasing local specialties and I will 100% return on my next trip to Rome!
Our last morning “goodbye run” took us to the outskirts of the city where we visited the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano, which is the most important church in Christendom and where the Pope resides in Rome. The area was guarded by soldiers and we were the first, and only, tourists to enter the church. Experiencing such a beautiful church in silence was perhaps the most rewarding experience of our run.
I have to admit my experience in Rome exceeded above and beyond my expectations. Being with such an active partner made seeing the city a delight, even in the early mornings and thunderstorms. The city inspired me so much that I downloaded a book to learn more about the ancient history of Rome. I intend to return in May when Ryan’s friend visit and explore the “hidden gems” of this fascinating city.
UPDATE TO ROME POST
I returned to one of my favorite cities on our last full week in Italy. Although we were only in town for two full days, I made the most of visiting many of the sites I had missed the first time.
This included taking an in-depth look at the Imperial Forum. The Imperial Forum includes all of the ruins on the left side of the road on your way to the Colosseum. It is a series of monumental public squares that were constructed in Rome over a period of one and a half centuries. It includes the Forum of Caesar, Augustus, Nerva, and Trajan. Trajan was the emperor who built the most monumental of these buildings called Trajan’s market, which was the ancient equivalent to a modern shopping center. The Imperial Forums were built between 46 BC and 113 AD, and are thus much older than the Roman Forums which were the heart of ancient Rome in 500 BC. The Imperial Forum museum allows you to walk through Trajan’s market and learn more about the construction of the forums of each emperor.
After the Imperial Forums, I finally walked up to the Victor Emmanuel II monument that dominates the Piazza Venezia. The monument is dedicated to Italy’s first king and built to celebrate the country’s initial unification in 1861. Inside the building behind it, I entered the Aracoeli Church and the Museum of the Risorgimento. The museum was quiet, small, and illustrates the Italian movement and war that led to its unification. I found the museum similar to reading a history textbook, except that I had no background in the Italian unification movement.
After lunch, Dave, Ryan, and I went to the Jewish Quarter. Rome’s modern synagogue sits where the medieval community was once situated. The synagogue houses a small museum that describes the oppression of Jews living in Roman ghettos. However, it also discussed the contributions that the Jews made to the Roman community in the arts, business, and trade. We took a short tour of the interior of the synagogue, which was built to commemorate the Jews being freed from the ghetto after the country was unified. Unfortunately, most Jews have left Rome due to anti-semitism.
My last museum for the day was the Museo dell’Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace). The Altar of Peace was created by Augustus to sacrifice animals to thank the gods for helping him pacify the barbarians and rivals at home. It also marked the Golden Age of Rome from AD 1-200. From that point on, the Ara Pacis hosted annual sacrifices by the emperor. The museum itself is a reconstruction of the altar in a modern building. Although the story is quite interesting, I did not think the Ara Pacis needed its own museum, and it certainly did not take more than 20 minutes to learn its history and walk around the monument.
I made a final pit-stop for the day in the Piazza del Popolo- the square I visited during the AS Roma vs Barcelona game. It is lined with streets full of international shopping brands. The square today is a pretty resting point for tourists and locals alike.
My second day in Rome was also jam-packed. I booked tickets to the Borghese Gallery, a plush and opulent mansion of the Cardinal Borghese. It is one of the most incredible, over-the-top art experiences including world-class Baroque sculptures, Bernini’s David, and paintings by Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian, and Rubens. The audio guide is a must if you want to thoroughly enjoy this spectacular artistic eye-candy.
Following the Baroque, I ended with the National Museum of Rome, which hosts the biggest collection of ancient Roman art. This included many busts of emperors, sculptures, mosaics and frescoes, as well as coins and everyday objects. I though the museum was interesting, but did become quite redundant. It’s satellite location, located in the ancient Diocletian bath house, was somewhat more interesting. The bathhouse is one of the most impressive structure built by the Romans and had spread over 30 acres in its heyday. It’s former main wall was converted into the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. The architecture achieved in the baths was something that could not be replicated for thousands of years. The other parts of the bath contains the remaining collections of the National Museum, which are not a must-see once you have already visited the main hall of the museum.
I have to say I feel as if I have seen the majority of Rome’s major sites at this point. However, I would gladly return back to explore the other treasures it has to offer!