Unfortunately, both my disclaimer and opinion stated at the beginning of the previous post still stand, and although Rome has made a firm and positive impression it still came at a price. I couldn’t have been happier boarding the train to leave Venice as I took the actual seat I booked and settled in for a four-hour high-speed journey down to Rome at a cool 250km/hr. Credit where it’s due, Italy’s trains are fantastic and as with Japan leaves me wondering what all the fuss is about regarding the UK’s lame attempt at high-speed rail; just build it. But this is Italy and any prospect of actually enjoying myself was soon crushed by the conductor who was in the spirit of taking the law by the letter, that is demanding everyone wear an FFP2 facemask instead of any old one. Facemasks are still mandatory on public transport in Italy, and I have no issue with this although its enforcement is sketchy at best and I resent being made to go and buy another mask because the one I’m wearing isn’t fit for purpose on this occasion but has been on every other around the world. Regardless, I plummeted back into a bad a mood and decided to take it out on Italian sirens. Their emergency vehicles make the most ridiculous of noises akin to someone constantly leaning on the horn with the periodical shriek of a drowning parrot for good measure. When such things wind you up it’s time to be concerned. Fed up, we trudged out of Rome’s impressively gigantic train station only to be met by a garbage site with litter filling the streets; the Italians obviously don’t give a shite about first impressions and I suppose why should they, as they know we’ll still splash the cash to see the Colosseum and the Vatican while going crazy for suspicious, plastic, religious relics that we didn’t know we needed. The charismatic check-in process complete – passport, tax, key, bugger off – we headed to an Irish bar so I could rebel against Italian culture with a burger and fries. The tourist tax is worthy of mention as most city hotels will charge it. Simply a tax imposed on tourists for the pleasure of staying in overcrowded cities with overflowing bins, I’m unsure of its exact purpose. I believe it is to help support the tourism industry and maintain key tourist sites, but I believe it’s a little like shovelling snow while it’s still snowing and surely less snow would be more sustainable? A tax isn’t going to stop the tourists from coming, so instead of cashing in while still unable to contain the destruction, limiting tourists (while avoiding exclusivity) may be a wiser decision.
Our first full day in Rome was wonderful. Mrs me went to Naples and I spent the entire day in the hotel catching up on reading and writing in air-conditioned bliss. Skipping lunch, I was sufficiently ready for an excellent dinner and it was found right opposite the hotel. A family Italian restaurant with no weird extra charges, plenty of excellent food, and bloody lovely people taking care of us, I almost felt like I was back in Greece. Feeling refreshed and a little more optimistic, we headed off in search of the Colosseum under the impression it would look sexy at night. We had to make a slight detour due to some kind of city night-time rally taking place which actually proved quite entertaining, especially when the cars came screaming down towards the Colosseum before handbrake turning and speeding away. It was a steaming hot Friday night, the streets were full and why shouldn’t they have been because let’s be honest, it wasn’t a bad place to be. The glowing Colosseum looked magnificent regardless of the construction work, fencing and everything else that is used to keep the place standing. Although not fully complete it means walking around the perimeter offers a different view with every step and being such a commanding focal point, it is impossible not to be drawn into the magic of its history.
With only a day to get around as much of Rome as possible we decided to make an effort. Admittedly we could have had a good half day the following day, but the hotel wanted to charge us for storing our bags after a 10am check-out which I vehemently refused to do! I had planned a perfect loop around some of the key sites, excluding the Vatican because, well, I don’t really care, and starting with the famous Trevi Fountain. It was not a good start to the day, probably because I’m a simpleton but I like to think it’s because the Trevi Fountain isn’t really that great. There, I said it. It’s alright, but it’s not even that old and being built in the 18th century means it came about centuries after many of the Renaissance greats. Of course, there was no time to enjoy it even if I wanted thanks to tourists and the police constantly blowing their whistle to stop the mob doing stupid stuff like sitting on walls and touching the water. If ever there was a more demoralising job on the planet, this had to be it. Being a sad couple, we marched on to our next point of interest which was the Da Vinci museum where we frolicked with all the exhibits and soaked up all that was interesting of this extraordinary man. It only takes an hour to get around the relatively small museum but by the time I arrived towards the end which told the story of his art, I had completely forgotten he had painted The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa, for all of his other work in mechanics, science, architecture, engineering and the rest of it is just as incredible. Sufficiently cooled and learned we set a course to the Pantheon which again was just alright in my humble opinion. Very much Roman, it is of an impressive stature and I was surprised to find that the famous front with all its pillars is bolted onto a round backside. I will admit that if I had bothered to go and have a look inside, I may have been far more impressed but queueing in 37oC isn’t for me. Just around the corner we stumbled upon Piazza Navono which felt more welcoming than the open waste of space piazza in Venice and also featured a fountain with an obelisk sprouting from its loins. The fountain was just as sexy as the Trevi, you could walk around it and even touch it without the police blowing a whistle in your face, and what’s more it was in a beautiful location unlike the Trevi which sits in a random street.
A rare cheap and cheerful lunch calmed any fears of going hungry and we headed back to the Colosseum for our 3pm appointment, but first it’s time for another Italian quirk. Mercifully there are two water stations outside the Colosseum at opposite ends where water bottles can be refilled. Two problems of note. The first is that the place receives up to 8,000 visitors per day which doesn’t include the number of people hanging around outside. The second is that the water station offers one tap for still water where there is a long and constant queue and one tap for sparkling water which barely anyone used. Who needs free sparkling water in a public space? It’s pointless! Just keep rivers of cold still water coming and preferably at numerous locations. Now here’s the curve ball, the Colosseum was awesome. For a start, there were no queues because a timeslot has to be booked in advance and visitor numbers are capped. It was still busy inside but tolerable, and other than the odd coach load of people wobbling past we could walk around in relative peace. There’s little point describing it here because we have all grown up fascinated by the place, but when getting the chance to actually see and feel it I couldn’t help but be impressed by its size and sheer bulk. The size of the stones sitting five stories high was remarkable and seeing it complete and full of spectators must have been quite the experience. A ticket to the Colosseum costs in the region of €20-30 depending on the access you choose and also includes entrance to the Roman Forum, a place I had no idea about but turned out to be quite incredible. This is a colossal site rammed with ruins of all shapes and sizes right alongside the Colosseum and an enthusiast could get lost in such delights for at least a day, even I was impressed and a little disappointed we had to leave. In fact, Rome had caught me out. The city is understandably much larger and more open than Venice making it feel far less claustrophobic, and there is so much more on show than in Athens. Walking from the Pantheon to the Colosseum is simply delightful, moving between ridiculously pompous and relatively new structures to acres of ancient Roman ruins. Although the Italian grievances continued the following day as we waited for our one hour delayed train to Naples, I have to admit, I really quite liked Rome. Bravo.