ROME has an eerie familiarity for anyone who has a trace of history and/or movie geekery within them – though if you have seen La Dolce Vita, Roman Holiday and Ben Hur, you should be warned that bathing in the Trevi Fountain is strictly forbidden, it’s very easy to bump into people on the Spanish Steps and the Circus Maximus has been grassed over.
On my first trip to Rome a decade ago, I remember being a little unimpressed by the fact that our coach just slowed down so we could take pictures of the Circus Maximus – through the windows – before spending half an hour at the Coliseum and the Trevi fountain and about five hours at the Vatican. I probably would’ve chosen a radically different itinerary.
Me and the little lady were long overdue some holiday sunshine so we put together our own little week-long trip over a couple of nights online, with ruins and records for me, sunshine and shoes for madam.
Sights, shopping, fantastic food, booze, peace and quiet, rest and relaxation. What more could we ask for? There’s something for everyone.
Flying out of Liverpool John Lennon airport via Schiphol Amsterdam and onto Fiumicino Rome, me and Mrs Undeleted spent the first couple of nights of our holiday in the Italian capital.
We take the easy way out and get a (€30 or thereabouts) fixed rate City of Rome taxi from Fiumicino to our hotel.
A tastefully minimal four-star establishment, the ever-so-slightly pretentious Hotel Saint John on Via Matteo Boiardo in Laterano (towards the south of the old city) does the trick. Tediously, Hotel Saint John charges you for internet access and the wi-fi doesn’t even stretch as far as the first floor.
How very 20th century.
Efficient and comfortable, if a little clinical, it’s part of the upmarket Prime Hotel chain and the rooms are of a high standard – and we were horribly fascinated by the repulsive spectacle of Bill O’Reilly on Fox News on the hotel TV. Meanwhile, Italian TV is completely incomprehensible. The only women not wearing swimsuits are newsreaders.
More importantly, the hotel is a leisurely 10-minute walk from the ancient delights surrounding the Coliseum, and handy enough for Termini Stazione. Plus – if this is the kind of thing that floats your boat – it’s around the corner from the Basilica di San Giovanni, the Palazzo Laterano and the Scala Sancta, otherwise known as the Holy Staircase. I kid you not.
Rome is as much about religion as it is tourism and history. Huge, intimidating gaggles of priests sit in pavement cafes, smoking furiously and knocking back grappa after grappa. I felt like telling them: Pick on someone your own size. God’s bigger than all of us – but Chris Morris got there first. Nuns, of all shapes and sizes, denominations and nationalities, abound in Pythonesque numbers.
I walk up to the Basilica di San Giovanni one morning and all the priests and nuns in the world had congregated like a big flock of black and grey birds, all of them watching, waiting, like some mad, ecclesiastical re-enactment of the Hitchcock movie. It’s very touching and spiritual and all that, but it’s also super-fucking-freaky for godless rationalists like myself.
Everywhere you turn, there’s mad history just poking out of the ground. At one point we pass a big old pyramid. It turns out it’s more than 2000 years old. And the foremost attraction among the big, old stuff is the Coliseum.
Vaguely interesting fact: the Romans didn’t actually call the Coliseum the Coliseum, or even its modern day Italian name Colosseo. In antiquity it was called the Flavian amphitheatre after the dynasty that succeeded Nero and his clan, and who reinforced the idea that Things Had Changed by filling in Nero’s private ornamental lake, building the enormous stadium and giving it over to the amusement of the people. The name we know today comes from a big statue of Nero, the Colosso di Nerone, which once stood nearby.
It was built with the express purpose of hosting an ongoing orgy of violence, where hundreds of thousands of wild animals, prisoners of war, slaves, criminals and the odd posh kid were pitted against each other for the amusement of a baying audience, 50,000-strong.
The Coliseum still has a menacing, malevolent air, which is only slightly lessened by the centuries of non-lethal amusements it has provided since it shut up shop as a bloodsports venue in the sixth century. Dripping ice-creams and multi-lingual audio-guides have now replaced the stink of violent death and the sound of screaming.
The scale of the place is impressive enough in itself, but when you consider the monumental effort the Romans put into creating a venue for such nightmarish carnage – which, don’t forget, went on uninterrupted for centuries .. well, it makes you think. It shit me up, actually. Again. It’s like Auschwitz with sunshine. But we got some lovely photos.
Just across the road from the Coliseum is a ridiculously well preserved gladiator school. Walk along the Via dei Fori Imperiale and there’s the actual Roman forum on one side of the street and on the other Trajan’s column – Trajan’s column! Just there! Sticking out of the ground! – with carvings famously representing the conquest, slaughter and subjugation of the people in what we now know as Romania. Mental. We had an ice-cream.
Rome keeps you on your toes. Traffic roars around the Coliseum like the historic heart of the ancient city is a motor racing circuit. We get over the ‘traffic coming in the wrong direction’ thing fairly easily. The really confusing bits are the crossings, where pedestrians have the right of way – but only if drivers think you look like you have a sense of purpose and know what you’re doing. And maybe not even then.
Beautiful, bewitching and beguiling though it is, Rome is about as inaccessible a city as you can get, with haphazard cobbles and pavement furniture everywhere. The big attractions make an effort with ramps and lifts and what not, but if you’re in a wheelchair it must be an absolute nightmare. We need Commander Shaw-style hoverchairs and we need them now.
Another night, we did try to go the Rome’s alleged nightclub district but I think we took a wrong turn at the Circo Massimo. That was a long night. We might even have got completely the wrong side of the Tiber. Other than that, our experience of Roman nightlife was a bustling bar (neither of us noticed the name) more or less above the Colosseo metro station on Via Salvi, with a vibe strangely reminiscent of the Eighties – complete with sniffing patrons visiting the toilets time and again.
We’re slightly sad to leave the hustle and bustle of Rome, but a little relieved too. It’s all a bit frantic and on top. In a good way, most of the time, but it can get somewhat wearing.
Having said that, anyone who thinks Rome’s Termini train station is moody has clearly never been to Piccadilly bus station in Manchester. Yes, there’s a bloke kicking one of the ticket machines as hard as he can, over and over again, yes, there was a geezer who clearly decided that ‘don’t get mad, get incoherent’ should be his begging watchword and yes, there were women trying to guilt-trip us into giving them money by pushing their sad-eyed kids in our faces. We can get all that at home.
The queues for tickets are horrendous on Saturday afternoon but the food above the station concourse is great. I quickly polish off a risotto that’s as good as any I’ve eaten in Italian restaurants in the UK (though I was very hungry and in any case this veggie triumph was tempered by being caught out by a sneaky pasta dish containing some unbilled bits of bacon at the airport on the way home). Look out for the My Chef sign.
We had a bit of a scene getting on the train and getting to the right seats in first class – including what might have been an attempted pickpocketing – but the two-and-a-half hour train journey from Rome up the coast to Cecina is as good a way of adjusting to the change of pace from urban Rome to rustic Tuscany as I can think of.
We reach Cecina half an hour after the last bus has left, meaning that we have to take an eye-watering €70 taxi ride through the rolling hills of Tuscany to our hotel outside Volterra. Luckily, it’s a truly beautiful bit of the world. But it still cost us €70.
After deciding that the villas in our price range were too remote or just a bit shit, we’d booked into the Park Hotel le Fonti in Volterra for the bulk of the holiday. With a terrace looking out over the extraordinary vista of the Val di Cecina, the hotel is on the western side of the hill on which Volterra perches.
The contrast between noisy, crowded frenetic Rome and Tuscany could not be greater. In the capital, your ears are assaulted by screeching sirens and alarms every couple of minutes. In Volterra, we fling open the windows of our hotel for a sensory assault of a very different kind, as the perfume of hibiscus flowers fill our nostrils, the chirruping of swallows dive-bombing the hotel pool fills our ears and we drink in a simply breath-taking view of the valley beneath us.
The menu isn’t particularly vegetarian friendly but the food is tasty enough, even the dense local bread – though anything would probably taste nice in a terrace restaurant with that kind of view, that kind of ambience. And apparently the wine cellar is “one of the best in Italy” according to my glamorous companion.
The town has become more well known outside of Italy since Stephanie Meyer included it in her Twilight books as the home of vampire royalty the Volturi – though Volterra’s Piazza dei Priori lacks a fountain or the space to build one, so when the last film was made the scenes were shot in nearby Montepulciano.
People have been living in Volterra for 3000 years more or less, although much of the architecture in the old town – including the fortress built by the Medici prince known as Lorenzo Il Magnifico – dates from the medieval period. We don’t hire a car but non-residents are barred from taking their cars within Volterra’s walls in any case (there is free parking all around the outskirts of the town).
The walk to the town from the hotel involves navigating two very steep stretches up the hill – every time we did it, we had to have a little breather by the time we passed under the town wall through the Porta All’Arca – but once you finally make it, you’re rewarded with a town which retains a genuinely profound flavour of another era while still being effortlessly modern and stylish in terms of facilities and services.
We will save the authentic medieval experience for another time, thanks.
Public transport links to ‘nearby’ world heritage sites such as Sienna, Pisa and Florence are tricky, given that they’re all a train ride of at least a couple of hours each way and the last bus from the nearest station at Cecina back to Volterra leaves at 6pm. So we sack if off and spend a couple of lazy days reading books by the pool.
We wander into Volterra daily – there are lots of shops selling alabaster statues (a local speciality), a gelateria, various ristoranti, and more art-laden churches and museums than you might imagine, as well as a Roman theatre and all the medieval stuff. No record shops, unfortunately.
We’re befriended by a couple of the staff from the hotel. Our guide book handy phrases appendix doesn’t make for great communication but as you might expect their English is a lot better than our Italian and we spend an entertaining afternoon getting pleasantly pissed up and talking about Berlusconi and football and music and the horrors of working in the service industry.
The unpromisingly-named Web & Wine just up from the Porta All’Arca on the road of the same name, is actually a fantastic little enoteca which is actually built over some tastefully underlit Etruscan archaeology (there’s a rather disconcerting glass floor). I had a strangely familiar thick and hearty bean and cereal soup and one of the best pizzas I had during my stay in Italy – and I ate a lot of pizza.
Before we realise it, it’s time to go. We have a panic about paying for the room on a card, so I head up the hill early on the morning of our departure to get cash out of the machine. The sight of the bottom of the valley shrouded in cloud as the sun lit up the hills around it is one that will remain with me for a long time. Needless to say, I couldn’t get any money out of the machine.
The lovely night porter calms us down and sorts us out. Yes, you can pay on that card, no problem. No, you won’t have to drag your suitcases up the hill and yes, of course I can order you a cab to the bus station. We love him.
We get the bus from the top of the hill and relax, although we are completely thrown by the inexplicable series of events at Saline. If it hadn’t been for our kindly bus driver neither us nor the rest of our fellow passengers waiting at the seemingly derelict platform would have known that our train to Cecina had been replaced by a bus.
Once back at Termini, we chicken out of getting the bus and get a cab to our hotel once again. Unfortunately, we managed to book into the main hotel rather than the annex we were staying in – walking our cases up to the liftless first floor reception in the stifling afternoon heat and then having to walk them a further 10 minutes through a very busy city – before eventually ending up at Residenza Zanardelli on Via Giuseppe Zanardelli.
After the pleasant and even sweet hotel professionals we’ve met earlier in the week in Volterra and Rome, the misanthropes at Residenza Zanardelli take some getting used to. The staff range from the brusque to the point of plainly not giving a fuck whether you live or die to surly, uncooperative and outright hostile. Maybe it’s because we got the last minute online €79 cheapo deal.
The room was adequate (it smelled like aerosols), the telly was huge (but, disappointingly, no Fox News) and the breakfast was okay (they get bonus points for Emmental), but the best thing about Residenza Zanardelli is that it’s a few steps away from the north end of the people-watching paradise that is Piazza Navona.
In the afternoon, Rome’s “most iconic public square” (thank you, Lonely Planet) teems with a never-ending stream of tourists – having their photographs taken against the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi by other tourists, taking photographs (but rarely paying for the privilege) of the usual collection of unconvincing pharaoh, cowboy and bride pavement-statue artists, and tourists with headphones on listening to a tour guide telling them about a city that is happening in full-on 3-D technicolour THX sensurround all around them.
We ended up at “Ristorante – Bar – Pizzeria” Caffe Domiziano a couple of times, once in the afternoon and then again later that evening. Perhaps surprisingly for a location in such a well-developed tourist trap, the food was pretty decent. I had a plate of tasty gnocchi with Gorgonzola and spinach while madam had a meaty rigattoni Amatriciana. We both enjoyed a big bowl of extraordinarily fat and delicious green olives later on. And some crisps.
Besides the fascinating ever-changing view, the principal attraction of Caffe Domiziano were the fantastically strong bellinis, mojitos and caipirinhas they dished out. We recommend.
I could’ve done without visiting the Vatican again to be honest, but Mrs Undeleted’s interest had been piqued by talk of desiccated papal cadavers in glass cabinets so we found ourselves wilting in the bright sunlight as we waited in a queue to go through the metal detectors at the side of St Peter’s square. A sign tells us that parasols are okay but Swiss army penknives are not, and the missus suddenly remembers she has some nail scissors in her bag.
We leave the queue and she eventually decides that the desiccated popes will be worth throwing away a pair of perfectly serviceable scissors, so we join the queue again. We pass through the metal detectors okay but get stopped by some misogynist fruit-loop in a suit who turns to me, points to the little lady’s cute summer dress and shakes his head. We turn around and go back the way we came.
Despite falling foul of the Immodesty Police, the missus is determined that she will not miss out on the freeze-dried popes, so she buys a vile I *heart* Roma t-shirt for €4 and since she no longer has her shoulders bare, it seems, she is no longer a base and wanton harlot.
Once we get inside the Basilica, it all stops being a bit of a laugh. Though there is a definite Disneyland air to some of the proceedings – tourists tend to behave in the same bovine fashion wherever they are – it’s hard to deny the place’s effect on many of the visiting faithful, many of whom seem to be the kind of people who rarely go outside of their native countries – ie poor people. They appear to be genuinely moved by the experience.
Equally undeniable is the fact that this spectacularly opulent building, a small part of the Vatican complex, neatly illustrates the priorities of the church in that reflecting the perceived glory of God seems to be more important than, say, feeding hungry people. But it’s not really about what happens in this life, is it? It’s the next life that’s important. So why do they need the big church with the precious stones and the gold-plating?
While St Peter’s Basilica provided welcome respite from the heat of the afternoon sun the pair of us couldn’t wait to get out of there. It’s a disorientating spectacle and not just because of the incense and a grisly fetishisation of death. There’s a statue of one pope wearing little round John Lennon glasses – I think he might have been a Pius – who looks like something from a Rudimentary Peni sleeve. Death Church? Quite. The whole thing is too bizarre and weird.
You might be glad to know we resisted the temptation to take pictures of desiccated popes. Most of our fellow pilgrims weren’t able to stop themselves.
Like the missus says, “It’s all a bit too much to process”. We need a drink as soon as possible.
Eventually, after a lengthy detour along Rome’s premier shopping street Via del Corso, we somehow end up at the busy little Gran Caffe La Cafettiera next to the remaining columns of Hadrian’s Temple (artfully incorporated into the Stock Exchange building) in Piazza di Pietra.
The lower house of the Italian parliament, the chamber of deputies, is close by and around us conspicuously well-dressed bright young politicos discuss the day’s business before heading back for the next vote. For once, the deep roar of assorted Alpha Romeos, Porsches and Lamborghinis drowns out the high pitched whine of the ubiquitous Fiat.
The lager and prosecco works its magic and, stuffed with the free bar snacks (weird sweet and savoury combinations, often with cheese), we decide to head back to Rome’s answer to Fawlty Towers. Walking back, we’re so tired by the time we pass the Pantheon that it barely warrants a glance. We don’t even have the energy to be ashamed of ourselves.
We end up getting caricatures done by a wolfish pavement artist in Piazza Navona. I look positively satanic and she doesn’t really look like her. I think I’m probably missing the point.
Either way, the pair of us had a whale of a time in this sophisticated, superstitious, chaotic, relaxed, uptight, adorable, infuriating country. With the wide knowledge and understanding born of tramping around tourist sites in Rome and Tuscany over just seven days, we would like to live there, thanks very much. Can someone sort it out for us?