Rome. Two and half thousand years of history, art, and civilisation distilled into one urban space teeming with beautiful architecture, winding streets, and lovely people. From the Roman ruins that rise from modern streets like the bones of the past bursting out of the ground, to the ornately-carved Baroque statues of the Trevi Fountain, to the indulgent gelato served up in street-side restaurants and bistros, this is a city to lose yourself in.
The founding of Rome signalled the rise of the Roman Republic and, subsequently, the Roman Empire. One of the birthplaces of Western civilisation and perhaps one of the first metropolises in the world, Rome has become the home of the Catholic Church and, over the years, one of the world's most important hubs of art and culture. To walk the streets of Rome is to see layer upon layer of history and human experience, and on a scale hard to imagine until you see it.
In a quiet neighbourhood, just down the road from a quaint selection of restaurants and bars, I stayed in a hotel that had once been a nineteenth-century townhouse. The style of the place, with its cool stone walls and marble textures, was a fitting introduction to Rome. Rome is a metropolis and, like all major cities in the twenty-first century, it has a mixture of human life and society that builds upon the skeleton of its past.
Alongside the fragmented stone of Roman ruins and the clean, white lines of Classical and Renaissance buildings, the streets buzz with mopeds and cars. Graffiti is not an uncommon sight. An archaeological site with historic significance to the entire human race will sit within walking distance of the nearest McDonald's. This is a modern city that is lived and breathed, not a repository for empires lost. The sun shines, the cafes overflow with people dining and drinking, and the streets are thronged with pedestrians. The locals are friendly and composed. There's a real sense of humour, etiquette, and fun. They dress in sharply-tailored clothing and often in black. Older Italian men wear classic suits and the women appear effortlessly stylish. Sun and heat makes no difference to the dress code.
Rome is a city of fountains. Crystal waters overflow from intricately-carved stonework in many public squares. The most famous is the Trevi Fountain, which can be found hidden behind meandering cobble-stoned streets. Naturally it is thronged with tourists at all times of the day, but it certainly is a sight to behold. If you wander down the alleys leading off from it, you can find colourful shops and coffee spots and even the almost-secret Vicus Caprarius-la Città dell'Acqua.
This excavation site is located below the Cineteca Nazionale and was only rediscovered in 1999. It shows you an intimate history of Rome, both ancient and medieval, through the large living space they uncovered and takes you through the way Rome's water was supplied - including the origins of the Trevi Fountain. It is a hidden gem. On the day I went, I was one of only two visitors and the place was fascinating.
Either side of Via Alessandrina you find significant remnants of the ancient city. The Museo dei Fori Imperiali and the Mercati di Traiano includes five monumental complexes named the Imperial Forums that were constructed during the Roman Empire. Built in the style of the old Roman Forums of the imperial-republican era, these newer buildings functioned as religious, political, and administrative hubs. The Mercati di Traiano was a marketplace and the treasures that can be found on display in the museum shows how Rome was a mighty industrial force as well as a centre of global trade.
Opposite, the Foro Traiano can be seen. Fragmented columns rise from the ground, marking the spot where this last Roman forum was built. The column of Trajan, built to celebrate victory over Dacia, is impressive and towers above it all. Seeing the ruins of these Roman Forums, built separately across the years, all piled upon each other, as well as the treasures they house that speak volumes about the human activity within, is a unique and evocative experience. It pulls you out of yourself to imagine the scale of industry, economy, and life that happened here - now just broken remnants of a once-thriving city and home, rather comically, to many feral cats.
Some of the ruins were discovered as little as twenty-years ago, which just shows that we never truly know the whole story. There is always more to unearth.
Everyone knows the Colosseum, if not by sight then at least by name. That, however, does not prepare you for the experience of seeing it. It was far bigger than I had expected. An oval amphitheatre, erected from concrete and sand, it was built between 70-80 AD and could hold upwards of 65,000 spectators. It stands 48 metres tall at its highest point, with four storeys of intricate stone archways. The arena would have hosted gladitorial matches, animal hunts, theatrical shows, and much more besides. It is probably one of the best examples of Roman society indulging in Juvenal's so-called "panem et circenses".
Palatine Hill is one of the most central of the Seven Hills of Rome, and the one upon which Rome was most likely founded.
The hill is home to the Palatino, a huge complex of buildings from which almost all modern languages derive their word for Palace. This overlooks the Roman Forum. The buildings include a Domus, multiple places of residence, a bath house, and many others to explore.
The Roman Forum was the centre of public life in Rome for centuries. Sitting between the Palatine and Capitoline Hills, the Forum is a rectangular plaza surrounded by the sprawling ruins of ancient government buildings and archaeological excavations. It was the site of processions and elections in the ancient world and would have hosted public speeches, trials, and gladiatorial matches. It was a famed marketplace and would have been the core of commercial activity. Now, the triumphal arches stand by tumbledown archways, tall columns, and faceless statues.
The House of the Vestals was the residence of Vestal Virgins and stands behind the Temple of Vesta at the edge of the Roman Forum, between the Regia and the Palatine Hill. Today the only remains of this three-story building are a row of female statues, chipped and weathered, that commemorate the priestesses of Vesta, a lingering remnant of religion in pre-Christian Rome.
What really took me back was the scale of this place. I had a moment of awe when I realised that this grandeur, this city, this beautiful art and aesthetic was built by the hard-working hands of people that lived over two thousand years ago. To think that humanity was capable of creating such order, industry, progress, form and on such a scale, only for this empire to fall and plunge us into a thousand years of the Dark Ages is a fascinating commentary on human progress.
The Theatre of Marcellus is an open-air theatre built towards the end of the Roman Republic. It sits in Sant'Angelo and would have originally been a popular place to watch dramatic shows and songs, holding upwards of 11,000 spectators. Space for the theatre was created by Julius Caesar, but he was murdered before its construction began. The theatre is designed with the arches and columns typically seen in buildings of this style. However, whilst it is speculated that columns were used for the upper level, the theatre was reconstructed in the Middle Ages and the top tier of seating and any columns were removed. What now remains is an unusual mixture of ancient archaeology and medieval architecture.
LARGO DI TORRE ARGENTINA
This square contains the ruins of four Republican temples, and the footprint of Pompey's Theatre. It is situated in the ancient site of Campus Martius, once an important public space in Rome's Republican era and home to the Parthenon. The Theatre of Pompey, one of many buildings in this area used by the Senate for meetings, was the infamous site of Julius Caesar's stabbing.
GETTING A TASTE FOR ROME
Whilst exploring all of these ancient sites, you wander past the most colourful architecture and textured streets. Cobbled lanes dive off from main thoroughfares and apartment buildings painted in the deepest warm hues topple high over the street below. The lanes are stacked with little restaurants, spilling out onto the pavement. Window shutters, climbing ivy, and old street lamps decorate the walls. As you go, you pass the loveliest little bistros and cafes. There's ample opportunity to enjoy a hearty Italian pizza and a cold glass of wine, the condensation dripping down the glass as the sun shines above. But, naturally, no day in Rome is complete without a gelato.
The best gelato I had was from the Gelateria Frigidarium. Found along a winding side-street and not too far from Piazza Navona, this gelateria serves up scoopfuls of creamy gelato and a topping of your choice. I chose to have it dipped in melted chocolate, because life - just occasionally - is perfect.
The River Tiber is a relatively small river compared to most that you find in large cities, but its waters are a diluted turquoise blue and the bridges that cross it are beautifully carved and adorned with statues.
You must cross the Tiber to visit Vatican City. Home to some of the most impressive ecclesiastical Renaissance architecture in the world, St. Peter's Square and the Basilica were designed by a collection of Italy's most revered artists - not least Michelangelo. Its dome is especially imposing and can be viewed from miles around.
Following the large promenade that proceeds from St. Peter's Square, Via della Conciliazione, you come out next to Castel Sant'Angelo. Also known as the Mausoleum of Hadrian, this immense cylindrical tower was constructed to be the tomb of the Roman emperor Hadrian and was built on the right bank of the Tiber, between 134 and 139 AD. Hadrian's ashes were placed here after his death.
The tomb has mostly been lost in time. In 401 AD the building became a military fortress. Alaric's sacking of Rome in 410 and the besieging of Rome in 537 by the Goths both contributed to the loss of its decoration and contents. The structure fell into the possession of the Church by the fourteenth-century and was converted into a castle by the popes.
Opposite the entrance to Castel Sant'Angelo is the Ponte Sant'Angelo, another ornate bridge linking the north bank of the Tiber to the south bank. Construction on this bridge was completed in 134 AD, another aspect of Hadrian's excessive mausoleum plans, and three of the remaining five arches are the original Roman structure. It is made of traditional Travertine marble and lined with statues frozen in movement. The bridge has a tragic history. As well as being a place to fearsomely display the bodies of those executed in Piazza di Ponte, the bridge partially collapsed during the Jubilee of 1450 drowning many people. Houses and Roman ruins were actually pulled down to widen the bridge in order to encourage its use as a pilgrimage route to Vatican City. Its bloody history is all but forgotten today. Now you are more likely to see art students peppered along the bridge, sketching the elegant marble statues.
ALL ROADS LEAD TO ROME
The legacy of Rome is momentous. The way that Roman civilisation has influenced the world is as complex and layered as human experience itself. Visiting Rome is a mixture of sun, colour, charm, and pure existential wonder. They say all roads lead to Rome and the road I'm on will most definitely lead me there again.