You know how you thought that dreams like that never becomes true and then it suddenly hits you that you are indeed in the dream and fear that it might end soon? That.
It was Christmas Eve early morning and cutting through the Tuscany region we were on our way towards Roma. Friends were already in the hotel and they said Pantheon looked majestic the night before. And I was still a good one-hour away. Not done. There was a forecast of a rainy Christmas and a cloudy New Year in Italy and I was really hoping that it was a false one. But things changed and sky was clear all of a sudden.
Unlike the other European countries Rome station turned out to be real messy with thousands of people running in and around it. Mostly there was no queue and no prepaid taxis available. We managed to grab one and all we had to say is “Pantheon”.
Hotel Albergo Abruzzi was the destination. Located in Piazza della Rotonda, this old restored building stands across Pantheon, the ancient roman temple, dedicated to all the gods of Rome. Unlike Paris, Rome is quite a small city and if you stay at the heart of the old city almost all the sights and historical buildings will be very much walk able.
Receptionist lady smiled and quite cheerfully gave us an introduction and before we left she handed over us two copies of Rome street maps. Having already been to Paris I had no false expectation regarding the size of the room. Small and cozy would be the apt description. It all made sense when I opened the window. There it was. Pantheon.
We freshened up and got ready for Vatican City. It started raining the moment we stepped down from the cab. With our tickets already booked we quickly made it through the long elevator and found us in the huge courtyard of the museum.
There are arts galore and it will take months probably to stop and appreciate even the simplest forms of frescos at every corner and ceiling of the museum. Amazingly beautiful art pieces at every nook and corner can left us dumbfound. That Sistine Chapel is a must watch and no way we should miss “The Last Judgment” and “The creation of Adam” was a well-known fact. But it gave me goose bumps. Not because it was legendary and magnificent but because at some point in Rome, the history coincides with Myth and Legend. We have been reading and hearing about Renaissance art since ages and here I was standing where once Michaelangelo stood and reviewed his own work.
Time to move. We came out, had lunch and walked to St. Peter’s square. One point of caution, try to avoid the eateries just outside the Vatican. One of them charged us 20 euro for a coke.
It was late afternoon. Rain had stopped and people already started gathering for the midnight mass. Christmas tree was lit, stage was set and cops were everywhere. It was festive time and it was visible. However to attend the mass one has to make a written request at least one week in advance. The elliptical piazza, designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, can be seen being embraced by equal number of columns at both sides. It symbolizes the embracing arms of ST. Peters Basilica. And every piazza here is always accompanied with one or more fountains. Visiting Rome during Christmas has its own perks. The festive mood, the street lights were all part of that. Travelling in cabs in the old city was fun. In no time and cheap fare we made our way back to the hotel. (Station to pantheon, St. Peters sq. to pantheon all came around 5-8 euros).
Rested a while and found out a cozy Italian boutique restaurant. If your birthday falls on Christmas and you are in Rome then it got to be special. And so it was. We gorged on the lobsters and fishes and then delicate desserts at the end.
It was late night, midnight mass has started and we made our way back to pantheon on the cobblestoned streets of Rome.
Visiting Rome during Christmas has some pitfalls as well. We had to check and verify each place of interest’s opening time and accessibility. Vatican remains closed on 25th and 26th and so does The Colosseum. Hence we had plans to visit colosseum the morning of 27th the day we would be leaving for Venice. And 26th was marked for Pompeii. But we were not ready to travel 14-16 hours a day in a packaged tour. So the task was to find an automatic transmission car, a rare species in Europe. And that too with an Indian driving license. Though we did rent out cars using the same license in Belgium and Switzerland but in Rome, all big car rental companies clearly refused us. Finally a cheap rental company at the Roma Termini station and its sweet receptionist lady came to our rescue. She did not even charge us for additional driver. “It’s Christmas, enjoy!!” she told us. We got the car, went for a test drive and then parked it near station and came back to our hotel. By the time we were hungry for lunch all the restaurants were closed and we had to really hunt down one pizza corner and while doing so we came across “The Area Sacra” ruins near Pantheon. Close to this was the “Curia of Pompey” (senators used to assemble here for the political meetings). Story goes that this is where Caesar was stabbed to death.
One amazing thing about Rome is if you can get hold of a tourist street map and don’t mind roaming around walking then there is a chance that you might end up seeing all these small gems of the city as a chance encounter. And that feels great.
Done with the lunch we walked and walked. Shopping in Italy is so much fun. Amazing leather stuffs!! But if you are heading to Venice at some point its better to hold on shopping for a while because Venice was shopper’s paradise.
It was late afternoon when we marched into Piazza Navona and gosh we were so glad we did. The open Christmas market was still on and it was a joyous gathering. In the center the Piazza has its glorious Fountain of Four Rivers (apparently the obelix at the top was brought from Egypt) and to keep up with the balanced theme the southern and northern end of the piazza boasts of ‘Fontana Del Moro’ and the fountain of Neptune respectively.
The Christmas market had all kind of entertainers including magicians, artists quietly standing at the corner and painting and vendors selling all sorts of souvenirs. We wanted to make a quick stop at our hotel and then proceed for “Fountain De Trevi’ but there was a huge traffic and there was no cab. But it was fun. It was like walking around in Kolkata during Durga Puja days. The festive mood is intoxicating.
On top of that it’s hard to control the temptation and not stare back at some amazing wooden artifacts or walk past it without actually buying 2-3 of them. So we gave in and bought some cool wooden magnets and proceeded towards Founain De Trevi.
They say it is the most famous and beautiful fountain in the world and they are not wrong. The Central Figure is that of Neptune, the god of sea. Two horses are pulling his chariot. One of them is calm and the other restless. This symbolizes the changing mood of the sea. Story goes that this fountain water is actually coming from a far away spring (almost 20km from Rome). It is also known as wish fountain. I tossed a coin over my shoulder and threw it into the fountain. If the legend is true I should be back here in Rome again sometime.
Next step was Spanish step. A small boat shaped fountain ‘Fontana della Barcaccia’ lies at the foot of the steps, which connects to a church at the top. But the most interesting fact, to me at least, was the villa standing at the right end corner of the steps. John Keats spent last few years of his life and this is where he breathed his last in 1821.
Mesmerised and spellbound we were on our way back to our hotel and this time we got a cab. But we could not just go back directly to the hotel. Our driver gladly agreed to stop for a while in front of Collosseum. And what a stunning view it was.
Day3 – Drive to Pompeii and Amalfi coast
Pompeii was a wealthy trading town and its importance lied in its unique position. It was the passage between Rome and the Mediterranean Sea. Romans used to come to Pompeii for vacation. A modern city it was. Wealthy people used to have elegant courtyard and small traders had their own shopping outlet just outside their houses. Hot airs running through cavity walls were used to heat up the rooms. The city had excellent water and drainage system. It was all good and fine until August 79 BC when the volcano in mount Vesuvius erupted and everything went for a toss. Cold dark night descended on the city. People tried to escape. Some even reached the beach. And some could not. And some decided to stay back with their family (Caius Julius Polybius’s family). And history says that none survived that unforgiving night and within three days the whole city was buried under layers of ashes and pumice only to be rediscovered in 1599 and then finally in 1738.
Rome to Pompeii distance is approx. 250. We started early and the drive was comfortable. Nice roads and not much of traffic and by noon we were already in Pompeii. There are multiple gates to enter the site. If you miss one keep driving till the next one.
About choosing the guide my suggestion would be opt for the Audio guide. You will save time and also have the opportunity to move at your own pace. Also grab a map and mark the sites you want to visit.
Sudden extreme heat and volcanic ash turned victim bodies into plastered one. 79 BC to till date. Nothing much changed. We are still weak and helpless when it comes to the rage of mother nature.
We had already planned a Amalfi coastal driving experience. A unique combination of mountain and sea, the southern coast of Italy offers a spectacular range of cliffs, caverns, bays and beaches. Head southwards and you can even plan a stay in Capri Island or as a matter of fact anywhere in the coastal area. The view is amazing. However we had go back to Rome and hence stopped for a while in few places and then headed back to Rome. Next time may be.