Rome (and the Vatican) and Sorrento

A long time ago, Susanna and I made a visit to Rome. Rome was satisfying, Though we enjoyed walking more than our bus tour. The Vatican City was crowded and the Sistine Chapel in the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the pope, worth queuing for. Then we went to Sorrento.

Rome Revisited

Years later, I'm back in Rome again. Early June is a good time to visit. It’s warm, but not so hot that walking is an effort. The Colosseum, the Forum and the numerous cupolas are admirably framed against a clear blue sky. There are already too many people though and the queues into St Peter’s Basilica are not encouraging. The main road down to the Forum is thronging. A Funny Thing Happened to Me On the Way to the Forum… well a gladiator demanded to have his picture taken with me. And then demanded money with menaces afterwards.

Rome, the Background

Rome is the capital city of Italy, built along the shores of the Tiber River. Myth has it that the city was founded by twins Romulus and Remus, who were suckled by a she-wolf. (There are sculptures of the wolf.) Vatican City. the smallest country in the world, is an independent country inside the city boundaries of Rome - the only country within a city. The archaeological evidence of human occupation of the area of modern-day Rome dates from about 14,000 years ago

The city successively became the capital of the Roman Kingdom, the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire and then the capital of the Papal States. In 1871, Rome became the capital of the Kingdom of Italy, which, in 1946, became the Italian Republic. It was one of the major centres of the Renaissance, and then the birthplace of both the Baroque style and Neoclassicism.

Rome is known as the City of Seven Hills (for obvious reasons), due to its geographic location, the Eternal City (as dubbed by Tibullus, then Ovid, Virgil and Livy), Caput Mundi (Capital of the World). Rome is generally considered to be the 'cradle of Western Christian culture and civilization' and the centre of the Catholic Church. It's an important city. and as we know, 'All Roads lead to Rome'.

And there's always plenty going on. There’s a Gay Pride march this weekend and the city is having with visitors who have come to participate. There’s a motor bike parade early on Saturday and another one on Sunday with floats. I think it’s all part of the same event. Maybe not, as the bikers are all hoisting national flags. The Sunday parade features glitter hurling and a lot of men with great bodies, in teeny tiny swimming trunks.

Exploring the City

You can explore this bustling (possibly chaotic?) city by bike, hop on- hop off bus, Segway or even on a Vespa scooter tour, But central Rome is just about walkable. And it is completely free.

Colosseo

How to describe this world renowned city with so many awe inspiring sights, the centre of an incredible wide flung empire? Impossible to capture it all. I've read so much and seen so many movies. Julius Caesar of course is fascinating. Then there's Anthony and Cleopatra, I Claudius, Gladiator, Ben Hur and Spartacus. That's just a few. My hotel is in the Colosseo district in the heart of ancient Rome, where the Colosseum (the name of the area is a bit of a clue), the Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum are located. Just to the south, the Circus Maximus (think Charlton Heston and chariot races).

The Colosseum is perhaps the most well known tourist attraction. It's an amphitheatre, the largest in the ancient world, holding between 50 and 80,000, depending on which expert you believe. The Roman entertainment centre was most famously used for Gladiator fights, where individual cites would flaunt their wealth by staging shows: gladiatorial combat, as well as a variety of other events, such as animal hunts. It's reported that rhinoceros, hippopotami, elephants, giraffes, aurochs, wisents, Barbary lions, panthers, leopards, bears, Caspian tigers, crocodiles and ostriches all featured. You can't visit without recalling Kirk Douglas or Russell Crowe, togged up and ready for the fight.

Separating the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill is the Triumphal Arch of Constantine, commemorating Constantine's victory over Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in AD 312. The arch spans the Via Triumphalis. This is the route taken by military leaders when their victories were honoured and they entered the city in a procession. (You must have seen these in many films). As is so often the case, much of the sculptural decoration consists of reliefs and statues pilfered from earlier monuments.

The Palatine Hill (one of the Seven Hills of Rome) is a bit of a scramble in the heat. It's where the rich and famous, starting with Augustus, built their palaces. So, it's sprinkled with ancient ruins, and the views alone are worth the climb. Running below, in the valley between the Palatine and Capitoline Hills, is the Roman Forum. This was the hub of the city, the heart of the Empire, the home of the market, meeting places (the most celebrated in the world?) and the Senate. It's a sprawl of ruined shrines, palaces, monuments and statues. Wow.

Some of the emperors moved the forum around the city a little, establishing new power bases, before it was returned to its original home. Caesar's forum is to the west and then a little to the north, the huge red forum of Trajan's. Adjacent, the Basilica Ulpia, an ancient civic building and Trajan's Column.

Centro Storico

From the Fora, to the less antiquated, but equally beautiful, baroque and medieval areas in the Centro Storico (Historic Centre)- the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, the Jewish Ghetto, and some of the city’s most gorgeous squares – most notably the incomparable Piazza Navona.

The Pantheon, one of the giants of Rome, is a little complicated. It was a temple built by Marcus Agrippa, but it burned down. It was then rebuilt by Hadrian, who for some reason kept Agrippa's inscription. In 609AD it was turned into a church. The Piazza Venezia is yet another city hub, home to numerous monuments. The Piazza Navona was built on top of the stadium of Domitian and maintains the same shape. As well as all the wonderful baroque buildings there are three fountains. The central edifice is the Fountain of Four Rivers by Bernini, topped by the original Domitian obelisk

The most famous Roman fountain, is of course the Trevi, by Salvi. As all the movies tell us, you have to throw a coin into the water. Tossing one coin into the Trevi Fountain means you'll return to The Eternal City, tossing two coins means you'll return and fall in love, and tossing three coins means you'll return, find love, and marry. An estimated 3,000 euros are thrown into the fountain each day. The money that isn't stolen is used to subsidize a supermarket for Rome's needy.

Tridente

From Rome’s centre north to the area called Tridente, window shopping on Via del Corso and the Via Condotti, which leads to the famous Spanish Steps (Piazza Spagnia somehow doesn't sound quite so exotic). It's always busy here and the police have a good time trying to keep tourists out of Bernini's cooling boat shaped fountain at the bottom.

At the top of the the 135 steps, the French monastery church Trinita dei Monti. There are three different terraces, referring to the Holy Trinity (the Trinità), on the way up. The reward is an Egyptian obelisk and a great view across the centre. (If you can see through the crowds). Officially, the steps are named after the church, Scalinata della Trinità dei Montian. The unofficial name refers to the original siting of the Spanish embassy on the square at the bottom. The Villa Borghese gardens are just beyond. This group of holiday villas (there was even one for the Pope) are now home to assorted galleries and museums.

The Vatican and Trastevere

Finally, over the River Tiber bridges to towering Castello Sant'Angelo and the Vatican City itself. The castello was originally Hadrian's Mausoleum and the tallest building in Rome. Then the Popes used it for their fortress homes. Now it's a museum.

Just south of the Vatican, Trastevere is described as 'one of Rome’s most charming and happening districts'. Narrow, winding streets lots of boutiques and restaurants and plenty of gelaterias. Back south, crossing to an island, the reconstructed Ponte Fabricio is the oldest Roman Bridge across the river (AD62)

Opening times are unpredictable and annoying. The Vatican seems to shut down most Sundays, unless you count the Pope speaking prayers from his window, when he is at home. Most of the shops are closed on Saturday afternoon and all of Sunday too. Fortunately, there are a surfeit of cafes and restaurants. When in Rome - do what the Romans do, And when we do finally make it back, our hotel has a great roof top bar, with a view of the Colosseum.

Read more about Italy here.

The Vatican State - in a Nutshell

Facts and Factoids

  • Vatican City is, uniquely, a city-state and enclave, totally surrounded by Rome. (The border is two miles long.)
  • This microstate is the smallest country in the world.
  • It is ruled by the Pope, as absolute monarch, with the assistance of other high ranking Catholic clergy.
  • Vatican City consists mainly of offices, residences and St. Peter's Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and the Vatican Museums. These feature some of the world's most famous paintings and sculptures.
  • The economy of Vatican City is supported entirely by donations from the faithful, by the sale of publications, postage stamps and souvenirs and museum ticket sales. There are no taxes.

A Brief History of Vatican City

  • If you've watched TV and films (everything from The Borgias to The Two Popes), you'll know that the history of the papacy has been colourful and fascinating.
  • The Vatican City evolved on the site of Ancient Rome's Nero's Circus. Saint Peter was said to be crucified upside down here. Constantine built a basilica on the spot.
  • There are numerous list of popes, spiritual Christian leaders, with Peter generally said to be the first. But it is thought that there was probably no single 'monarchical' bishop in Rome before the middle of the second century at the earliest. As their powers grew, so their lands extended and the Papal States covered a large portion of the Italian peninsula, for more than a thousand years until the mid-19th century, when all the territory belonging to the papacy was seized, by the newly created Kingdom of Italy.
  • After the Avignon Papacy (1309–1377) the popes have mainly resided at the Apostolic Palace, within what is now Vatican City, although at times residing instead, in the Quirinal Palace in Rome, or elsewhere.
  • The Vatican has only been independent from Italy since 1929.
  • The popes and the Apostolic Palace are protected by the Pontifical Swiss Guard in their distinctive striped uniforms. The guard is one of the oldest military units in continuous operation. It was established in 1506, by Pope Julius II.

The Holy See

The Vatican State should not be confused with the Holy See (I'm told). This is the jurisdiction of the Pope, in his role as the Bishop of Rome. It includes the apostolic episcopal see of the Diocese of Rome, which has universal ecclesiastical jurisdiction over the Catholic Church, as well as the sovereign city-state known as Vatican City. According to Catholic tradition it was founded in the first century by Saints Peter and Paul. The Holy See has permanent observer status at the United Nations - it has never applied for membership.

Visiting the Vatican

  • Visiting the Vatican when you're in Rome is a daunting affair. The crowds are huge, and the queues lengthy. To be frank it’s a scrum. It can take an age to get into the basilica. And if you want to see the Pope declaiming the Angelus prayer from his window overlooking St. Peter's Square, at noon on a Sunday, you need to bag your place early.
  • Finding the museums and the Sistine Chapel isn’t easy either. The chapel isn’t well signposted, it isn’t open on most Sundays and they shut the doors well before closing time. Other museums and buildings seem to be closed on an arbitrary basis.
  • Assuming you can actually get in and get a clear view of the paintings and sculptures, without getting shoulder barged, they are, of course, sublime. If you survive yet another queue, and paying another admission charge, the view from the top of the basilica is wonderful - a panorama of the square and the city behind.

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