All the architecture, all the history, and it comes down to this: Rome is the place where you get your pocket picked.
Sad fact as it is, wherever in the world you visit, be it a restaurant, country, hotel or airline, your experience is defined by the worst thing that happened. It’s the poor service, rude hoteliers or delayed flight that sticks in the memory like a neon signing flashing the words: DO NOT COME HERE AGAIN AND DO NOT RECOMMEND THIS PLACE TO ANYONE.
And so we come to Rome, a city of gigantic splendour, with architecture so grandiose that magnificent churches become merely ordinary as they clamber for attention against such iconic pieces as St Peter’s Basilica, the Colosseum, Pantheon and Vittoriano.
There was fear before arriving in Rome – fear of having my camera equipment or wallet stolen. Muggings are not a major problem in the Italian capital but pick-pocketing is rife.
When, on Sunday morning, I realised my wallet was no longer in my sealed pocket as I stood on the No.60 bus en route to the Colosseum a wave of resignation swept over me. I knew I’d been done over good and proper.
By the end of the day I’d ticked all the boxes of a full-on Rome adventure: Sistene Chapel, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Colosseum, wallet stolen. If I ever go there again perhaps I’ll take an empty wallet especially for the pick-pocket experience.
Still, as my 250 euros, 50 British pounds and book of 12 second-class stamps feeds an Italian family for a week, let me recount what actually makes Rome a great European city.
The buildings. Aside from the must-sees like St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, the ancient Colosseum, the majestic Vittoriano, a white monument built in honour of Italy’s first king at Piazza Venezia and the AD126 Pantheon, there are hundreds of other monuments, statues, fountains and churches to marvel at. There’s the Spanish Steps, Piazza del Popolo and Campidoglio.
The streets. You can try and take in as many buildings as possible but the true pleasure of Rome comes from that surprise discovery round the corner of the street you just walked down just after you got lost. In Rome, losing your bearings is never a bad thing. Wandering down the tight cobbled streets somewhere between Piazza Novona and Piazza del Popolo is how you discover the city.
Rome has an excellent bus service. Your hotel will be able to tell you which service you need depending on where you are heading. A day ticket only costs four euros. You can’t get tickets on the buses – only some stops have ticket machines.
The food. Pasta and pizza is the Italian way of life. As in any major city there are restaurants for the tourists and restaurants for the locals which the more savvy traveller seeks out. In Italy, the trattoria’s are the venues to enjoy.
Cheaper than restaurants, and often run by locals rather than big chains, they offer the sort of uniqueness that make dining in a foreign city a magical experience. At seven euros a pizza, trattorias can be half the price of a nearby restaurant.
We enjoyed a meal for two costing 20 euros at a trattoria while also paying nearly 60 euros for two meals in a restaurant near the Pantheon.
But as good as the food is, let’s get back to the historical stuff. In the Vatican Museum there are so many hugely significant works of art you will never be able to see them all. The Raphael Rooms in the Vatican Museum are a treasure your eyes must gaze upon. I’m no fan of painting but Raphael’s Transfiguration is the most stunning my 36-year-old eyes have witnessed.
The Sistine Chapel and the remarkable work of Michelangelo is what every single visitor to Rome goes to see. But you can’t take in the true breadth of the 12,000sq ft of work without learning about its history.
To do that, you need to book a tour – and as a tour booking helps you jump past mile-long queues which hug the outside of the Vatican walls from 9am every day, this is the best piece of advice I can give you. Book a tour – it’ll save you hours and hours of needless waiting around.
Exactly the same advice goes for the Colosseum – book in advance and avoid the queues. We didn’t actually take a Colosseum guided tour but waving our pre-booked home-printed tickets got us straight into the impressive arena without any waiting.
For the Vatican, I actually arrived 15 minutes late for my tour. But having the ticket allowed me to get straight into the Vatican Museum where I was able to book onto a later tour at no extra cost.
At the Colosseum, my ticket got me through the huge queues outside the arena, and again past further queues inside. A Colosseum ticket also gives access to the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill on the same day and also the following day. One point worth noting is that you must specify your visiting time when you book for the Colosseum but (and this is the confusing bit) if you book your ticket for 9am you can turn up any time of the day after then.
Taking advice on where to go always brings up new curiosities and the one recurring recommendation I got before arriving in Rome was: go to Trastevere.
Situated on the west side of the River Tiber, Trastevere is out of the way of the main tourist arteries. We waited until the final day of my three-day visit to go – but I’m so glad we made the effort.
Trastevere, where Julius Cesar built his garden villa, is a series of criss-crossing cobbled streets that meet at what was the most picturesque square (piazza) I encountered. The compactness of the square, lined with restaurants and with a fountain as its centrepiece, is complimented by the Santa Maria Church, one of the most ancient in the city.
There are so many stunning pieces of sculpture and architecture in Rome your head would be spinning if I named them all. But standing head and shoulders above all others is the Fontana di Trevi, a tight piazza split in half, one part monolithic sculptured fountain and one part surf of people swilling over the steps and pavement to gawp at the fountain’s brilliance.
The Trevi is one of those architectural freaks, too big and overpowering for the piazza that houses it – yet the high constraining walls that envelope the fountain make the piece such an awesome experience.
From early morning until late at night, people swarm around the Trevi Fountain to take in the magic. Resplendent with marble tritons and lifesize leaping horses, the Trevi is a true masterpiece in a city where masterpieces can be found on every corner.
The fountain, designed by Nicola Savi, was completed in 1762, 30 years after work first began – and eleven years after the artist himself passed away. But his legacy undoubtedly lives on through his creation which gives Rome one of the most unique pieces of public art in the world.
Discovering stunning artworks is what you do in Rome. So, when in Rome, do as the Romans do (this does not mean picking people’s pockets).
Edinburgh to Rome Ciampino with Ryanair – £97.89 (plus extra £30 for a suitcase, with a maximum weight of 15kg). Carry-on hand luggage has maximum weight of 10kg, though in reality this is rarely checked – however luggage size is checked (55cm x 40cm x 20cm). I used a Utility Warehouse pre-paid credit card to avoid a surcharge of £5 per flight (=£10 per person for return tickets).
Bus from Ciampino Airport
Eight euros return with Terravision (link here. Do not book bus through Ryanair as the cost is over 30 euros for a return ticket. This is a Ryanair rip-off. There is also a bus service for four euros (each way). You can buy these tickets at Ciampino Airport.
Buses around the city
No.60 and No.62 go around or near most major attractions. No.62 for the Vatican, No.60 particularly good for pick-pockets. The buses get very busy and may be too packed to actually get on but they run frequently.
Three nights cost £85.88 (based on two people sharing and includes breakfast).
Three-hour tour (Museum, Sistene Chapel, St Peter’s Basilica) 36 euros, booked directly through the Vatican here www.vatican.va
This seemed to be the cheapest option, there are hundreds of operators offering Vatican tours.
We booked with Omniticket though, as with Vatican tours, there are many. Cost 13.5 euros each (entrance only – no tour, but includes Roman Forum and Palatine Museum). The guided tour costs 17.5 euros.