Road to eternity
Its empire may have long since sailed into the sunset, but Rome’s reality is every bit as enticing as its glorious reputation
There are some things in life for which you may feel a lifetime is not enough. For me, discovering Rome was one of them. Built on seven hills across the Tiber river, the Eternal City can keep your travel schedule jam-packed for a week and still you will have only scratched the surface. Rome is more than a fascinating European capital; it is a spectacular encyclopedia of living history. With its architectural and artistic treasures; its glorious panorama of ancient, medieval and Renaissance buildings; its magnificent fountains, exquisite sculptures and multitude of museums, Rome sure knows how to impress.
And impressed we were as we arrived from Venice at Stazione Termini, Rome’s main station, close to its historic centre. The station stretched endlessly as far as the eye could see – buzzing with activity and packed with jostling tourists and locals. But there appeared to be some method to their madness, unlike us! After trying in vain to locate the tourist information office, we chanced upon a uniformed officer and asked him directions to our hotel. We were told it’s a five-minute walk from the station; so off we went, dragging our suitcases over cobbled pavements and crowded streets.
Thus began our first brush with Rome, a vibrant and lively city with reminders of its past everywhere. One thing struck me right away – the city’s unique mix of antiquity and modernity. I had never before been to a place where there are so many ancient monuments interspersed with more recent buildings. My second thought after walking a good 25 minutes was that ‘five minutes’ is only a figure of speech; half an hour is more like it! And so it was that we arrived huffing and puffing at Hotel Welcome Piram, all pumped up for our Roman sojourn.
For day one, we had pre-booked a tour of Ancient Rome and our pick-up point was supposedly a 10-minute walk from the hotel. It turned out to be a 40-minute walk instead! By now familiar with the Romans’ concept of time, we used this opportunity to soak in the magnificence of this monumental metropolis. The sheer excess of beauty in Rome is overwhelming, to say the least. Roman columns soar up beside medieval basilicas, the tinkling of water fountains fills the air at Renaissance palaces, colour and aroma fill the noisy markets and streetside cafes. We were amazed at how motivated we were to walk so much. And then we realised what it was – in Rome, you never know what you’ll see
around the next corner. A narrow alley might lead to a beautiful fountain or piazza that makes you feel like you’ve discovered your own special part of Rome.
Thus fascinated by the city’s epic grandeur, we arrived at our first stop – the awe-inspiring Colosseum.
Built in the first century AD, this was the largest Roman amphitheatre that hosted fierce gladiatorial combats and spectacles with wild beasts to keep Roman masses entertained. One of the most important architectural and engineering landmarks of ancient Rome, the Colosseum is impressive not only for its size and endurance, but also for providing an insight into ancient life. With over 80 entrances and seating for over 50,000 spectators, it is divided into three main areas – pit, arena and auditorium.
As we circumnavigated the Colosseum’s façade, we couldn’t help but marvel at its construction – it seemed structurally imposing even in its ruined state. All that remains of the arena today are the subterranean passages where prisoners, gladiators and animals were kept before the games. We were intrigued to observe the three-tiered seating encircling the arena – knights used to sit in the lowest tier, wealthy citizens in the middle and plebs (commoners) at the top; the podium was reserved for emperors, senators and VIPs.
As we left the premises, I was reminded of an ancient legend that Rome will stand as long as the Colosseum stands, and the world will stand so long as Rome stands. Well so far, we are doing fine!
Our next stop was Basilica San Paulo, commonly known as St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, one of the four major papal basilicas of Rome.
This is the most under-rated tourist attraction as people usually flock only to Vatican City. Yet it is a hidden gem with spectacular interiors and impressive gold mosaics. This monolithic structure is the biggest church in Rome after St. Peter’s and stands on the site where St. Paul was buried. Built by Constantine in the fourth century, it was largely destroyed by fire and much of what you see today is a 19th-century reconstruction. Gold medallions containing papal portraits adorn the walls.
Every pope since St. Peter is represented and legend has it that when there is no room for the next portrait, the world will fall!
Reflecting on this doomsayers’ prophecy, we headed to Capitoline Hill to view the ruins of the majestic Roman Forum.
Of Rome’s seven hills, the Capitoline Hill (Campidoglio) is the most sacred. This is where the city’s first and holiest temples stood, including the fantastical Temple of Jupiter, king of gods. The Forum, which lies scattered in the valley between the Capitoline and Palatine Hills, was the commercial, political and religious centre of the Roman Empire. It also housed the Senate, where Julius Caesar was assassinated.
When the power of the Roman Empire declined, the Forum suffered fire and pillaging barbarians and fell into despair. But the remains of temples, triumphal arches and granite columns are still there. We were able to recapture a sense of that ancient euphoria by climbing the marble steps to Piazza del Campidoglio, the ornate square designed by Michelangelo. From its exalted heights, we gazed at the panorama below and could almost visualise victorious emperors parading up the Via Sacra (Sacred Way) to the Temple of Jupiter after their conquests. On this regally uplifting note, we wrapped up our Ancient Rome tour.
Early next morning, armed with a city map and all-day metro pass, we headed to Fontana di Trevi, regarded as the most beautiful fountain in the world.
The nearest metro station is Piazza Barberini, from where the fountain is a five-minute walk. We walked through narrow alleys, along countless restaurants and outdoor cafes, expecting to reach a huge piazza. And suddenly out of nowhere, the fountain popped up in front of our eyes – set at the intersection of three small streets!
If I had to describe the Trevi Fountain in one word, it would be monumental. An 85-foot high masterpiece of architecture and sculpture, the fountain depicts the god of sea, Neptune, riding in a chariot led by Tritons, with sea horses representing the moods of the sea – one calm, the other agitated. The commanding spectacle of gushing water and magnificent statues in their pristine glory took our breath away. We sat there for a long time, watching the crystal clear water dancing in the sunlight and hordes of tourists pushing and shoving to grab the perfect spot to throw their coins. As per legend, throwing a coin over one’s shoulder into the fountain guarantees a return to Rome. On an average day, about 3,000 euros are chucked away!
Our next stop was Piazza di Spagna, one of the most popular and visually appealing meeting places in Rome. At the heart of the piazza lie the Spanish Steps, a monumental staircase of 138 steps leading to the church of Trinita dei Monti.
A hangout for flirting adolescents and footsore tourists, the stairs have been immortalised in photographs the world over. Since we were visiting in summer, the steps were decorated with flowers, which made it a delightful climb. The view from the top was charming – masses of tourists gathered in the overcrowded square below near the Barcaccia fountain, while artists captured the picture-perfect view on canvas. At the base of the Spanish Steps is the Rodeo Drive of Rome, the Via dei Condotti, where luxury brand names from Fendi to Ferragamo can be found. We strolled along the pedestrian-friendly streets, soaking in the ambience of high-end boutiques and cafes, before heading for our final destination – Vatican City.
Covering just 0.44 sq km, the Vatican is the world’s smallest sovereign state and considered the holiest place for Catholics as it’s the official residence of the Pope. There was a very long queue to enter the ‘Walled City’, as the Vatican is called, and we had to go through security checkpoints just like an airport. We then entered the Courtyard of Pigna (pine cone) and proceeded to the Vatican Museums.
One can write volumes on the incredible art found within its galleries – the sculptures, paintings, tapestries, frescoes and historic maps spanning 3,000 years are breathtakingly beautiful.
The museums boast the world’s largest collection of Classical sculpture, plus extensive artworks from the Etruscan, Egyptian, Early Christian, Renaissance and modern periods.
Not to be missed are the Raphael Rooms, where School of Athens, Raphael’s great masterpiece is on show. The only drawback was the massive crowds everywhere, which made it difficult to admire the artworks in peace.
We followed the surging crowds that seemed to be heading in just one direction – towards the Sistine Chapel. With masses of people packed like sardines inside the chapel, it was hard to imagine it as a quiet place of deliberation. But cardinals have gathered here in conclave for centuries to elect new popes, broadcasting their results through smoke signals from a chimney. It’s also the only place in the museum where photography is prohibited. A world of discovery awaited us as we entered the Sistine Chapel – the pinnacle of western art.
We were awe-struck to see Michelangelo’s most well-known frescoes – Genesis (Creation) spread across the chapel’s ceiling, and The Last Judgement covering the entire end wall behind the altar.
The sheer size and deeply religious, intricate artwork overwhelmed us beyond words. Although eclipsed by Michelangelo’s artistry, the chapel’s remaining walls were adorned by Renaissance frescoes of masters like Botticelli, Raphael, Ghirlandaio, Pinturicchio and Signorelli. The overall impact of this fascinating chapel-cum-picture gallery was dramatic, marred only by the security staff exclaiming “silence” repeatedly!
We exited the Sistine Chapel to arrive at the magnificent ‘Scala Regia’ (Royal Staircase) designed by Bernini, which led us to the ‘Holy Door’ that is opened only once in 25 years (it was last opened in 2000).
We then made our way to St. Peter’s Basilica, Italy’s largest and most spectacular church built over the tomb of St. Peter. Standing in front of such an iconic landmark with its ethereal grey colossal dome dominating the Vatican skyline felt exhilarating.
After another round of security and dress code check, we entered the basilica and I stopped in my tracks as my eyes glazed over its sheer size. It really is the mother of all churches – it’s grander, more impressive and more decorated than any other church. The dazzling interiors, comprising paintings and statues of religious icons and artefacts, stunned me into silence. In the first chapel to the right, we saw Michelangelo’s celebrated masterpiece, the Pieta sculpture of Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Jesus.
At the centre of the basilica, our attention was drawn to the papal alter framed by a tall, bronze canopy designed by Bernini.
Feeling awed and somewhat spiritual, we then emerged on to St. Peter’s Square, the Vatican’s central piazza and one of the world’s great public spaces. It was teeming with tourists of all hues and colours. It is said that whoever arrives here feels welcomed by a ‘spiritual embrace’ because of the shape of St. Peter’s Square – the basilica at the centre, with semicircular colonnades on either side, symbolises God (or the Pope) reaching out his arms in embrace.
As we walked out of the Vatican gates, I kept turning back for one last glimpse of this magnificent structure that had left us spell bound. There was just one more place left to visit – Castle Sant’Angelo, that used to be a medieval fortress and refuge for popes.
With its unmistakable cylindrical contour and scenic position along the shore of Tiber river, it is an endearing landmark for tourists.
Our Roman holiday had come to an end. It had been an enlightening and overwhelming experience – I realised there’s nowhere better to experience Italy at its passionate, pompous, panoramic best than Rome. Yet I felt as though I hadn’t seen it all. It has been said that every road in Rome leads to eternity. I felt I could spend an eternity in the Eternal City and still thirst for more.
I can’t wait to return…