Everyone I had spoken to prior to this trip had told me how much they loved Rome, so I had high hopes of it.
After we booked the holiday I realised that our time in Rome would fall on a weekend and everything I read screamed that it would be busy. Having done a lot of research we (I) decided to book as much in advance as possible.
MrS set about getting restaurant recommendations from a colleague with the express remit that they should be non-tourist-where-locals-eat places and I found out about tours of different places – notably the Vatican and the Colosseum.
Palazzo Manfredi was the “funkiest” hotel we stayed in during our two weeks, not surprisingly being a boutique city hotel rather than the converted monasateros we stayed in for the rest of the time. It didn’t lack history however, having begun life in the 17th century as the villa of the Evangelisti family, designed by architect Giovanni Battista Mola.
Our bedroom window and bathroom window overlooked the Colosseum and the remains of the largest gladiatorial school (discovered as recently as 1937). As views go it was pretty epic.
When you visit London, the “sights” are pretty specific, most of them are singular large buildings or places or icons. In Rome however, you cannot walk more than 100 yards without encountering a monument or statue or building of interest. If you’re looking for vast structures with columns, small unassuming statues, massive fountains, or a combination of all three with a large statue on top, Rome is your city. By the end of the weekend, when confronted by a pile of columns in the Forum, we decided Rome had so much old stuff they didn’t know where to put it all anymore ;) But let’s go back to Friday …
It was quite late in the afternoon by the time we arrived and for the first time that weekend we had a monumental thunder storm. After it passed and having had a look on the map to see what was nearby (not the colosseum as that was for Sunday) we decided we had time to stroll to the Trevi Fountain and be back in time for dinner.
It was at this point I realised how busy Rome on a summer weekend was going to be. This is the crowd that was at the Trevi Fountain. At 7pm.
Dinner that night was literally round the corner. Palazzo Manfredi has a Michelin starred restaurant within it, but when I'd tried to book it was full. It turned out to be a blessing actually because it had spurred us to get recommendations for local places from a colleague of MrS. I'd gone for the casual option for Friday night, the little taverna round the corner from the hotel called Taverna dei Quaranta. Even though it was near the Colosseum, it was slightly off the main track and whilst we walked along the main street and were hassled to eat in the restaurants we passed, Taverna dei Quaranta was employing no such tactics. Like the restaurant in Fiesole, it was unsophisticated, but unlike the restaurant in Fiesole, when we asked for a wine list, the only option was the house red or white! The red turned out to be delicious - and definitely not corked! After all the 5-7 course meals we had eaten so far, the sharing platter of antipasto followed by pizza (his) and gnocchi (hers) was unfussy and tasty, just what we needed. Along with an early night as we had an early start...
When I began to research what to do and see in Rome the first thing that struck me was the general advice to book skip-the-line tours with guides, and at the very least to buy tickets in advance. For our visit to the Vatican I used Viatour, through Trip advisor, and paid for a "small group tour" (less than 12 people). This included the Vatican museums (954 galleries in total, if you have some spare time!), the Sistine Chapel and St Peter's Basilica. In an English speaking party we were the only Brits, the rest being American, all of whom seemed most interested in seeing the Sistine chapel and not (and I quote) "too much of the boring stuff beforehand".
We picked a tour that started at 10am, most of the recommendations are that it's less busy in the afternoon but we planned on walking back across the city to arrive back at our hotel late afternoon so a morning tour fitted our plans better. It was packed. Have you ever visited the Natural History museum in the summer holidays on a rainy day? It was 10 times worse than that. 100 times.
The Vatican museums are incredible. They display works from the huge collection built up by the Popes across the centuries, including some of the most prominent classical sculptures and masterpieces of Renaissance art in the world. I have to say, by the time you reach the end you become quite blase about the frescoes on the ceilings and the size of some of the statues.
The Raphael rooms refocus you though, especially the incredible School of Athens fresco. It was at this point that I started to feel claustrophobic though, so crowded were the rooms at this point. This however, was nothing compared to The Sistine Chapel (for impact AND overcrowding).
It's unlikely that you won't know about the Sistine Chapel and its ceiling that Michelangelo took five years to paint even though he was initially reluctant to do so. The ceiling itself depicts nine scenes from the book of Genesis, and spanning the entire wall behind the alter is the incredible Last Judgement.
The following images are from the museum website because there is no photography allowed in the Chapel itself - not that stopped people trying to take them. The chapel is supposed to be silent and camera free but sadly the guards were fighting a losing battle with both of those.
I could have stared at both of these for hours, but sadly the crowds were just too much by now and we moved outside.
The Basilica had been closed that morning and had only just reopened when we made our way to it, so it too, despite its vast size, was crowded. So much so that at one point I moved to let someone past in a wheelchair and I happened to stand in front a woman who was trying to take a photo (photos ok in the Basilica...), who promptly pushed me back into the path of the wheelchair.
By this point my endurance of other humans was wearing thing and we moved back outside
My lasting impression of the Vatican City was that it was very beautiful, but that people also need to remember it is a religious setting and, even if you don't believe in Catholicism or any other religion, if you are visiting, you pay some respect. Compared to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, I was shocked by people's attitude and rudeness.
It was time for lunch! It was time for pizza actually. Del Monte Food and Drink, Borgo Pio, fantastic pizza and paninis and all for less than 20 euros.
As we had intended we then walked back through Rome to our hotel although we did have to take an unexpected pit stop when massive thunderstorm passed over. Luckily we were right near a bar when it started...
It was no wonder therefore that we nearly passed the Pantheon without realising that's what it was. It was in quite an unassuming square, although with yet another fountain, but it wasn't as big as I thought it would be. Unfortunately this was also closed for a service so we couldn't see the inside and we didn't have time to wait for it to reopen as we were off to a great little place for dinner....
Il Nido del Pettirosso (The Robin's Nest) was highly recommended by Trip Advisor. Tucked away in a semi residential area it really is a hidden gem. It's tiny, and booking is essential. The owner is French and spent some time, telling us his story and explaining how he had tried to marry the best of both cuisines. The food was wonderful. The decor is quirky, intimate, almost like sitting in someone's kitchen and the service was in keeping with that feeling, not pretentious or over the top. It was like a kitchen supper with friends. This was definitely a local secret, but the secret is nearly out and if you are visiting Rome I urge you to got to this fantastic little place before it becomes crazy busy like the rest of Rome.
Having spent the last 2 days looking at it from our hotel and walking past it to get elsewhere, our last day in Rome took us to the Colosseum. I had booked an extra tour for this visit too, although this time through Italy Museums. This ticket didn't give us a skip the line option however, and you do still have to queue, but there are two queues one for pre bought tickets and one for those wishing to purchase at the gate.
As our timed tour wasn't booked until 11:20am, we arrived about 10:15. The queues were already huge, surrounded by the tour touts, and we spent a nervous half an hour thinking we wouldn't get in before our tour was due to start, but in the end we were in with 20 minutes to spare. The tour was absolutely worth the extra money. It gave us access to the underground and upper levels, which without a tour guide you don't get to see. This was without doubt my favourite tour in Rome. Our guide was knowledgable and personable (once again in an English speaking tour we were the only English people!); if you intend to visit the Colosseum as part of a visit to Rome, I really recommend you have a proper tour, not least because it ends with you having this stunning view from the upper level...
The Colosseum ticket also gives you entry to the Forum and the Palentine which are valid for the same and next day. The Forum is huge and can be quite daunting. We probably missed loads but were just happy to wander around in the sunshine look at what we stumbled across. We were watching the clouds too because on the horizon was a fairly hefty thunder storm coming our way. The Forum used to be the centre of Roman life and many of the oldest and most important structures of the ancient city were located on it or nearby. There is just too much to see here...
We spent nearly 2 hours in the The Forum and we still didn't see it all. Then the storm that had been threatening all afternoon appeared and we made a run for it back to the hotel.
Our last meal in Rome was another recommendation from the colleague of MrS. Restaurant Ai Piani was also a well kept Roman secret, again in a residential area, right over on the opposite side of the city to where we were staying. Our taxi drive had *cough* difficulty finding it until he realised we too had sat nav on our phones and knew exactly what he was doing and quickly "found the right route". Incidentally, whilst they all drive like lunatics in Rome, this was the only dodgy taxi we had while there.
I'm afraid if you're waiting for me to tell you at some point that we had a bad meal, we really didn't during the whole trip, and Ai Piani was no exception... the lighting wasn't very suitable for photographing food though ;)
Did I love Rome? No, not like I love Paris, not like I love London. But I did love parts of it. I loved wandering round the back streets from the Vatican to the Pantheon, and the Colosseum tour was absolutely my favourite thing. But the inevitable hordes of other visitors spoilt it for me. Even in New York and Paris I haven't experienced crowds like that and if I went again I would definitely go out of season.