(Much love to this Italian chef who posed for my photograph while baking a pizza base!)
‘Wheennn the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore!’ This song played in the back of my mind for the duration of our stay in Rome, the Eternal City. The city earned it’s nickname from the ancient Romans, who believed that no matter what happened in the world, no matter how many empires came and collapsed, Rome would stand the length of time. To this day, the ancient Roman belief has not withered, as the capital of Italy remains a city of both warmth and energy. There were so many things to do, monuments to see, food to devour and experiences to live that we were constantly on-the-go.
Read on for my ten favourite experiences in the Eternal City.
Rome: Top Ten
- The Colosseum
One of the seven Wonders of the World! Built in 70 AD, the stone amphitheatre was commissioned by Emperor Vespasian of the Flavian Dynasty as a gift to the Romans. It was used for gladiatorial combat and wild animal fights for four centuries, before falling into neglect and deterioration from earthquakes. Vespasian built it in replacement of Nero’s Palace as an iconic symbol of Rome. Looking into the heart of the Colosseum, I tried to imagine tigers and lions prowling through the underground maze as gladiators fought to the death on the platform above them. To think I was standing in a place where crowds used to gather THOUSANDS of years ago is so surreal.
- Vatican City: St Basilica Church
Europe has a LOT of churches. As in, more churches than Italy has pizza. St Basilica is arguably one of the most beautiful and impressive churches in the continent. Possibly the world. It has a beautifully painted ceiling and a jaw-dropping dome, as well as being home to Pietà, sculpted by Michelangelo in 1499. More than that, it’s located inside the smallest country in the world.
- EAT: Pizza, pasta & gelato
Rome is no exception when it comes to Italy’s rich love of food. The first night we were treated to a five course, traditional Italian dinner. Vines crawled over the walls of the warm restaurant as we began the night with a selection of tomato bruschetta and tapas. There were huge share bowls of pasta somewhere in the middle and tiramisu served for dessert. My other Roman food adventures included eating pasta in a little restaurant with a singing waiter, gelato by the Trevi fountain and pizza at a corner store called Alice’s.
- The Roman Forum
The hidden highlight in this sprawl of ruins was finding Julius Caesar’s grave, where he was buried after being stabbed to death. All there was to see was a dilapidated mound of rock and stone hidden behind a small wall. It is hard to believe that such a momentous, influential person can be buried in what now appears to be an inglorious site.
- The Trevi Fountain
The statue in the centre of the fountain is of Oceanus, the God of the sea. His chariot is pulled by two horses sculpted either side of him, one with a wild expression and the other calm, representing the opposing moods of the ocean. Throwing a coin into the Trevi Fountain, your right hand over your left shoulder, was definitely a bucket list moment. One coin for good luck, two for romance and three for the promise of returning to Rome. Three coins it was!
- The Vatican Museums: Sistine Chapel
Inside Vatican City lies my favourite part of Rome, the Vatican Museums.
There are a series of magnificent hallways full of wall tapestries and sewn maps of Italy through many stages, from the beginnings of Venice to Rome after the great fire tore through it during Emperor Nero’s reign. ‘The Gallery of Maps’ was breath-taking, the entire length of the ceiling saturated in pure gold, with small paintings interspersed between the gold frames.
The hallway lead to the even more impressive Sistine Chapel.
The roof was painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512, and was a cornerstone of the Renaissance movement. I sat on one of the benches surrounding the chapel and craned my neck upward to admire the fresco, applying my previous knowledge to the real-life artwork. Seven integral horizontal paintings were lined vertically down the centre of the roof, beginning with the ‘Creation of the World’ and ending in ‘Noah and the Flood.’ The most notable, of course, was the famed ‘The Creation of Adam.’ Seeing that scene was a pinch-me moment I won’t ever forget, as I imagined Michelangelo in this exact space, scaling ladders and moving scaffolding as he painted his masterpiece. I recognised the missing piece of watercolour where a section of plaster once fell from the ceiling, and appreciated how realistic his grisaille molding around each painting was. Every Renaissance artist was not just a painter or a sculptor, but something of an architect, too.
‘The Last Judgement’ was painted on the front wall of the chapel, depicting the eternal judgement by God of all humanity. I was utterly transfixed and could have stayed in that room for hours, simply admiring the 16th century artwork.
- Being blessed by the Pope
Every Sunday at noon, Pope Francis appears in the window of the Apostolic Palace and addresses the crowd of thousands gathered below him in The Vatican. We huddled next to the Obelisk in the middle of St Peters Square, eating Nutella and sleeping on each other’s shoulders as we kept an eye on the second window to the right. As hundreds of green balloons rose into the air, we jumped to our feet… there he was: PAPA FRANCESCO! I may have not understood even one word of the Angelus, but listening to the swirling Italian from the mouth of the POPE was such an exciting experience! Apparently it had something to do with mountains and community and loving your brothers and sisters; that sounds good to me! I’m just overjoyed that I can go through the rest of my life with the knowledge I’ve been blessed by the Pope, in the heart of Vatican City.
- STAY: The Yellow Hostel
The Yellow Hostel was more than just a place to sleep, as it also provided us with The Yellow Bar, accompanied by its secret underground club. Mixing free-pour alcohol with a free round of shots is a recipe for a fun and messy night. The best part is that your bed is right next door!
- The Vittoriano Monument
The Romans refer to the vast white building as ‘the wedding cake.’ It was built between 1885 and 1911 to celebrate the uniting of Italy as a nation, and dedicated to the first King of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II. But what’s striking about the Vittoriano isn’t the building itself, but the statue of Victor Emmanuel riding a horse. From down below it doesn’t seem too enormous, so I was shocked when I heard that the pedestal the horse stands on could fit a bus, and Emmanuel’s stone moustache was two metres long. What blew my mind was hearing that some very important Italians once had a dinner party in the horse’s stomach.
- The Pantheon
When I first laid eyes on the Pantheon there was a crowd surrounding an opera singer, the sun was setting, and the magnificent pillars seemed to be glimmering. I learnt a couple of cool facts about the Pantheon:
1. The 16 stone Corinthian columns were transported all the way from Egypt. They were dragged 100km on wooden sledges to the Nile River, where they were then floated by barge to the Mediterranean Sea. They were then pulled up the Tiber River until they finally arrived in Rome. WOW. It’s incredible to think my hand has touched so much history.
2. ‘Pantheon’ is Greek for ‘Honour all Gods.’
However, the ancient pagan temple was transformed into a church in 609 to save it from destruction by barbarian raids. Considering it’s used more as a tourist attraction than a place to worship a solitary God, I would argue that it exists independent of religion and more of a reminder of the past.