I was looking forward to Rome in an “Ooh I’ve never been there, and there’ll be lots of famous things to see,” type of way, but I wasn’t expecting great things, purely because most opinions I’ve heard, or read, of Rome consist of people saying it’s not that nice. It’s too crowded, too touristy, too big, too many pick pockets etc… I’m not really a big city person anyway so I figured it’d be interesting and a good place to strike off the list.
Well bugger me, everyone else is lying or they’ve been to a different Rome. It was incredible! I was not prepared for how much I would love, love, LOVE it. Before the end of the first day I was already making plans to return for regular long weekends.
The drive to Rome from Naples warrants a mention for the auto services attendant who, after looking at the wine I was purchasing – preparing to stay in and relax after a day on the road – and realising I was a foreigner, very kindly and charmingly told me that actually the stuff I had chosen was pig swill, and then went and picked me out another better (and cheaper) selection. Viva Italia!
Arriving in Rome was only stressful because we didn’t know where we were going and weren’t familiar with the one way systems, but we managed not to get lost, and found our very lovely apartment with relative ease. It was a fantastic warren of rooms high up in a five story courtyard of apartments, whose owner seemed to a lead a fabulous travelling lifestyle. The junior tribe members automatically loved him – without having a clue he existed – because he had a TV the size of a car that automatically translated programs into English… wow.
I went for a brief wander to find groceries, and discovered that we were 20 yards away from a bustling, city street lined with everything you need from banks to boutiques, to food stores, to restaurants, to places with free wi-fi but that was also pleasantly leafy with really wide pavements for us pedestrians. After walking up and down that street three times (“Did you not get any ketchup? Ooh, I forgot to say get orange juice. Do you think you should have got some snacks for tomorrow? The kids really want cocoa pops for breakfast…ahem….”) I felt right at home.
The following morning with full bellies and a slight panic because no one had a working phone or internet access, we managed to get on a golf cart tour of Rome.
Golf carts possibly might not be the first thing one thinks of for gadding about Rome, but I can assure you, it was bloody marvellous. The streets in Rome are narrow, cobbled, and crammed with people. Golf carts are rather zippy little things and, being only marginally larger than a typical fiat uno, perfect for navigating alleys and parking in teeny tiny spaces. They are of course completely open save for a shady roof, so you don’t get the feeling – as you do with cars and buses – that you are merely observing the world on a very close TV screen. And the best thing about golf carts … you’re not walking. For those of you who don’t know me, I love travelling under the steam of my own two feet, will walk for several miles rather than take a bus. However, every guided walking group I passed that day (from the comfort of the shady back seat) looked miserable and distinctly envious, not green with envy because they were all puce in the face from the heat.
First things first, here are the important details. If you’re going to Rome and fancy doing the same tour, go to drivingguide.com (it might be drivinguide.com with just one G), and look for golf cart tours. The man in charge is called Paolo. You book the tours for 4 or 8 hours. The four hour one was enough time to make sure we did lots of stuff, but also didn’t drive the junior tribe crazy. If I were just with adults and doing it all over again, I would go for the 8 hour adventure. It’s an insanely easy way to cover a huge amount of ground in one day.
We were assigned two drivers Giuseppe, who also goes by Joe, and Jenny. Joe is a native of Rome and an art history major and his wealth of knowledge was really quite astounding, this wasn’t just one site we were looking around – it was a city! Both of them were so good with the kids, funny and cool, and very much at ease with them, no mean feat.
Okay now for the rest of it. The tour was tailored to include any sites we particularly wanted to see, then all the ones in between, anything that Joe thought we shouldn’t miss. We started in a large piazza below the Villa Bhorgese which is home to one of the 13 obelisks in Rome (Egyptian architecture shows up again and again in Rome, there’s the obvious connection between Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, but even earlier Rome is inextricably linked with North Africa due to the relationship with Aeneas (the Greek that first came to Italy after the Trojan war) and Dido (Carthaginian queen that Aeneas cruelly used and dumped – selfish cad).
The piazza was also home to the twin churches designed by Bernini and one of his students; the North gate of Rome (remember that phrase, “All roads lead to Rome”, well the gates are where the roads fed into the original city built by Romulus…the homicidal maniac who killed his own brother because of a dumb fight); and also a couple of museums – including the da Vinci museum full of hands on exhibits for kids and adults to play with.
Next stop was Piazza Navona where tourists go to admire the fountain of the four rivers of the world, a very grand structure depicting four great personages each seated at the corner of a river : the Danube, the Nile, the Ganges and the Rio de la Plata representing the Americas because at the time no one knew the most massive river of all, the Amazon, even existed.
My favourite titbit associated with this fountain concerns the sculpture of Bernini, he is positioned facing the church of St Agnes which was designed by one of his rivals. Bernini had been rather outspoken of his dislike for the architect and the church’s design and so he has been sculpted with his hand in front of his face shielding his eyes from the offensive church. Heheheheh.
Ooh the piazza has also been featured in a Patricia Cornwall novel, a body gets found at the fountain! To be honest the book was crap, but the scenery is charming. Same goes for Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons.
Okay so here I have to stop and admit that I can only tell you about half the things we saw, and that I am going to run out of adjectives and it’s all going to get a bit boring because I want to express how grand and beautiful and impressive particular things are, but EVERYTHING IN ROME IS GRAND AND IMPRESSIVE AND BEAUTIFUL. I lost count of the times I nearly got hit in the face craning my neck out of the golf cart to see yet another gorgeous building on the side of the street. “What’s that? Is it a palace? Dentist… Oh ok, and that? Newsagents. Well what about that? Travel agents. That one? A bank.”
The only exception to all this grandeur is a little something called The Altar to Peace, which, in itself, is a beautiful building erected in honour of Augustus Octavius who was the first emperor to bring peace to Rome. Pretty impressive considering the Romans’ bloodthirsty history of stomping around the world, annexing countries and enslaving the natives. Tcha, who would ever behave like that nowadays….yes Britain, yes I am talking to you, you too Russia, and I don’t know what you’re sniggering at USA, we all know you want to be an empire really.
The Altar to Peace is next to Augustus’ tomb, a gargantuan circular structure. The powers that be were worried about the Altar deteriorating so another building was constructed around it to protect it. According to Joe it is the ugliest building in Rome, and I think he has a point. It’s not a monstrosity but it is offensively boring, a modern glass and concrete shell that doesn’t fit in with the sumptuous architecture every where else. Also… after a few measly years, it has a leaky roof.
Oh good grief, we are already on page three of this post and I haven’t even scratched the surface of our day. Hmmn, okay I’ll tell you about the other stuff in a series of shorter posts. Because let’s be honest in this day and age , reading anything longer than 500 words is a bit painful. Go reward yourself for getting to the end of this one. Have a G & T.