So as I should have predicted, I made no time for posting updates to my blog while I was away. Instead I spent my down time geo-tagging and uploading photos which kept me more than busy enough throughout my trip. Rather than attempt to cover the entire vacation in one big post, I’ll post an update per a country, in order of visit, over the coming days and weeks.
Rome was our first stop and one of the destinations I was most looking forward to visiting due to it’s abundance of landmarks and rich history. We arrived after somewhere between 24 to 30 hours of flight and following a relatively short train trip arrived in Rome. Our first challenge as it turned out would be crossing the street. Rome more so than any other country we visited appears to function on a different set of road rules. In particular drivers won’t stop at people waiting at a crossing and traffic lights are few and far between. Instead each and every time you wish to cross the street you close your eyes and take a leap of faith, similar to the second test Indiana Jones faces in The Last Crusade.
We made it to the hotel in one piece, which happened to be just under a dozen rooms occupying a single floor of one wing of what what appeared to otherwise be a residential complex. Accommodation wasn’t fancy, but at the prices we were paying I didn’t expect them to be. None the less it was more than adequate as a basecamp and proved to be within walking distance of most land marks, including the Vatican, if a small hike was accepted. As an added novelty the building had one of those small rickety caged elevators you see in movies. It wasn’t until our fourth or fifth day that we felt game enough to give that a go after we saw someone else first survive a trip in it.
Over the next few days we visited a number of landmarks. The Colosseum while grand from the outside ultimately proved to be a bit of a disappointment. Time hasn’t been kind to the ancient theatre even considering it’s 2000 years old. Generally I’d expect such an important landmark to have an external perimeter, with tourist facilities surrounding the building. This wasn’t the case. Instead fencing was integrated with the outer wall and upon entering the Colosseum we found that demountable bathrooms and ticket/information booths had been installed inside it. On the upper floor there was a large modern gift shop. The presence of these modern structures kind of ruined the atmosphere in my opinion, and I think the Colosseum is poorer for having them inside its perimeter. I don’t regret visiting it and would still encourage anyone to tick that box if passing through Rome, but I’m not sure it’s something I’d have to see a second time. It’s one area that I feel could be improved by moving the modern infrastructure out into the surrounding areas, of which there was ample room. With that all said, you can still imagine how grand it must have been in it’s heyday with a full crowd and drawn in to see non stop daily festivities.
Far more impressive was the Roman Forum situated about 100m away from the Colosseum. We spent about half a day walking through the gardens, viewing archeological digs and admiring statues and monuments in various states of disrepair as well as enjoying views from up high above much of the city. While it certainly had it’s modern elements, it didn’t feel anywhere near as tacky as the trip through the Colosseum had been and by virtue of being a very large area, and likely far less popular than it’s neighbour, it was a much less claustrophobic experience as well. My advice would be for people to budget about four to five hours in any trip to visit this landmark and finish it off with an hour through the Colosseum once lines have died down later in the day (purchase a dual pass at the Forum to skip the longer lines down by the Colosseum).
Mid way into our trip we went through the Altare della Patria having passed it a few times before then. I’d read somewhere that locals dislike the monument for it’s large size and non conforming architecture, but I actually found it quite impressive and enjoyed my visit. The monument houses a tomb for an unknown soldier, along with serving as a small war museum. Going through the building from front to back, one will eventually arrive on an upper balcony which provides some impressive views of Rome. We didn’t pay to catch an elevator to the roof, but I imagine the views from up there would be spectacular. Also accessible from this balcony was Basilica of St. Mary of the Altar of Heaven which like many other Basilica’s in Rome was stunning.
The Vatican was the other notable attraction we visited. We arrived early prior to any crowds showing up and walked straight into St Peters Basilica which was absolutely amazing, both in it’s intricate design including majestic statues, tapestries and art, but also breathtaking in it’s sheer size. You really do feel small upon entering the building. The Tomb of the Popes, which we had known nothing about before hand but discovered none the less when we saw a small line forming by the entry inside St Peters, was also fantastic to see. It was quite interesting to go through there, especially reading about some of the Popes that only served for 29 – 31 days or so.
Following the visit to St Peters, we spent several hours going through the Vatican Museums which were well worth the cost of admission (book beforehand!). There was some very impressive pieces spread around the various museum’s. It took much longer than I expected to finally hit the Sistine Chapel, and while Alexandra and I remain divided on our opinion of this building, I found it a pretty humbling experience being in that chamber. Other Basilicas may have had more elaborate architecture and been built around larger structures, but I think the relative spartan design of the chapel along with the smaller space made the art really pop out. I found it pretty overwhelming being in that room and due to all walls and the ceiling being so elaborately painted, difficult to concentrate my attention on any one spot for an extended period of time. Something I suggest everyone go and witness for themselves.
As far as things go, the Vatican City along with the Roman Forums were the highlights of our time in Italy. We also went past the Tivoli Fountain, but like much in Rome it was undergoing heavy maintenance/restoration and was largely obscured by scaffolding when we were there. I imagine it would be quite grand when open though. The Spanish Steps were also nice to stand atop of.
One interesting thing to note about Rome was the city appeared to go into shut down when one afternoon it was hit with some heavy rain. Unlike Australia there’s really no big malls and every shop opens out to the street with no cover from above, so as soon as it began to rain everyone crammed into whatever gift store or cafe was closest and waited it out. Myself and Ali were already wet so decided to walk in the rain back to our hotel, but for such a busy city we passed very few people on the sidewalk on that trip home and saw an awful lot of people peering out shops doors waiting for the rain to stop. Even traffic died, probably due to 90% of drivers being on scooters.
Unfortunately Rome was also the destination we least enjoyed in our vacation. While there are a lot of grand attractions, other aspects of the city don’t seem as well maintained I almost feel that building a modern city on top of an ancient site, while trying to preserve the historical elements, has sort of held the city back. Some area’s are majestic, while others felt much less so.
The never ending hassle from street sellers which also dampened the atmosphere. Very quickly you became proficient at looking disinterested and saying no, thats for sure. It’s also remarkable how quickly hundreds of on foot sales persons can change their inventory from selfie sticks to umbrellas when a hint of rain is detected. This, and things like having to jump in front of traffic to cross a street meant one was always on high alert. It’s also the only place I ever really felt unsafe after a local on one evening approached and forcibly grabbed me by the arm as we were minding our own business walking in a quiet side street. Nothing came of that, but it did shake me up and put me on alert for the remainder of our stay.
It’s a shame that those elements detracted from our visit, but ultimately I’m glad I visited Rome. While the Colosseum proved to be a bit disappointing, in part it’s probably a case of my expectations being set high and in the end of the day it was still good to cross that off my bucket list. Other landmarks proved to be more impressive and managed to make the trip memorable. The cheap prices of food were however appreciated and solely missed later on in our trip when we were spending three or four times the price on average for a meal. That and Rome’s Pizza was not only cheap, but it tasted delicious.
My advice would be for people to go to Rome three or four days and knock over the major attractions and then have some down time elsewhere.
The next leg in our trip was the one that we most enjoyed and would be most eager to see again, with that being Scotland.