Subject: Rome trip report, Feb 2001
I've been planning this trip for months. Used several guide books but a lot of the food places were from the Internet -- Europe newsgroup, the Fodors European forum, and the Travelzine mailing list were my best sources. The Blue Guide to Rome was invaluable for the great detail it provided, and the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Guide had great pictures and drawings.

Our first stage was the Sheraton Skyline Hotel at Heathrow -- a nice 5 star hotel that offered us free parking for less than we'd pay for a B&B and secure car parking. Nice indoor swimming pool -- actually in a covered atrium with a high roof, and our room overlooked it. A swim and sandwiches in the room that we'd bought earlier, and an early night. Up early Sunday morning to catch the Hopper bus to the airport. Outside we found a woman who had gotten off the last Hopper waiting for her husband to get their car from the car park. Turns out that although they'd parked under a security camera their car had been broken into and their CD player stolen. Not something we want to know as we leave our car behind for 4 days!

Catch the plane, Virgin Express/Sabena without any problems. Very budget airline not much room. Flight was just over an hour to Brussels airport, where we wait 2 hours for our connection to Rome. When we go through security to get to our gate my Leatherman Wave is confiscated. Evidently it was ok to take it from London to Brussels in my carry on luggage, but not from Brussels to Rome. Told I can have it back when I return but it must go in the hold. We'll only have an hour between flights coming back, but the Purser on the next plane says that will be enough time.

We land on time in Rome and get the Leonardo Express to Termini, Rome's main train station and an immense modern building. The train platform is about a quarter of a mile from the entrance of the station. Walking to our hotel is fairly straightforward but the first thing we notice is that the sidewalks aren't concreted over, and cobblestones, etc. are also typical in the streets. Anyway, we bump our way to the hotel. Big iron gates, ring the bell, and we are let into a large courtyard with a statue at the back. Steps on our right and left. Go up the steps to our left and into reception. Our room is at the end of several corridors -- nice room, one of those beds which is actually twin beds attached to each other, a fridge (usual hotel type with drinks in it), tv with remote control and many many channels, remote control operated air conditioning. Shower and bidet, no bath.

Unpacked and went out the D'Agnino's, a Sicilian pasticerria/cafeteria on the Piazza della Republica (actually in the Esedra galleries). The Piazza was part of the baths of Diocletian, which were immense. I had a cannolo, Helen some ice cream -- very expensive as we decided to sit down, which can increase the price by as much as 6 times.

Once refreshed, off we go to the Metro. Search for where we can buy weekly tickets, finally get some at a newsagents. 24000 lire, or 12 dollars/8 pounds. Get on the Metro at Termini, off at Colosseo.

It's night by now, and the Colosseum is particularly magnificent with its lighting. We walk along the via dei Fori Imperiali, again looking at all the magnificent ruins lit up. Even the Vittoriano, the much disliked immense monument to Italy's first king, Vittorio Emanuele, is beautiful at night. This huge, functionless monument is called the 'wedding cake' or the 'typewriter' by Romans.

We wended our way to Largo Argentina, where we intended to catch a tram to Trastavere. As we were crossing the street a voice from behind asked if we were English and if he could help us. 'He' was a South African named Richard, who guided us onto the tram and told us where to get off. Our destination was a pizzeria called Dar Poeta. In Rome, pizzerias are open only for dinner, and open around 8.

We got off the tram and asked where it was, and were guided to it by a couple who were also going there. But -- it's so crowded we'd have had to wait an hour, so we booked for the next night. Tired and hungry by now we made our way back to the area of our hotel and found a place called 'The American Bar'. Here I had grilled chicken with lemon and Helen a tasty lasagna. And then to bed.

Monday. Up early as we were booked for a tour at St. Peter's. At Richard's advice, caught the 40 express to the Vatican (the bus we planned to catch was the 64, thronged with tourists and gypsy pickpockets). Got there in plenty of time to take a quick tour of St. Peter's itself. Then to the Scavi office (having to get past the Swiss Guards) for the tour. Oops, read the note again and it says 'check your bags'. Dash across the plaza to the luggage checkroom, and after a bit of confusion get rid of our bags and back to the Scavi office in time.

Our tour guide was a very knowledgeable Italian woman. When St. Peter was buried, the area was a pagan cemetery on a marshy hill. Constantine levelled the area and built his basilica, and its 16th century replacement was built on top of that. The excavations took place in secrecy from 1939 to 1952 - secrecy in part because digging under something as heavy as St. Peter's wasn't exactly safe, and also because if nothing was found it would be a tad embarrassing to say the least.

The cemetery comprised a number of mausoleums -- a double row of these has been excavated. When the site was levelled, these were not destroyed but simply cut off at the height where Constantine built his basilica, and infilled to act as part of the foundation. The entrance is hot and damp -- the humidity is artificially kept high as a conservation measure. We were told we were lucky our tour was the first one of the day.

The first mausoleum we saw is called the Egyptian mausoleum because it has a painting of Horus on the wall. We were led through a fascinating series of mausoleums, both pagan and Christian. The one purely Christian one has the earliest mosaics yet found of a Christian subject. St. Peters tomb itself is encased in walls built by Constantine, and a series of altars from various churches were built on top of it, culminating in the present high altar of St. Peter's. All you can actually see is 1 of the 2 small pillars that were excavated of the 4 that held up a small marble slab. Still very impressive.

Went to the Vatican post office and posted a card, then found some steps to sit on and recuperate and regroup. We had planned to do the Sistine Chapel, but that would have involved extensive walking, time and crowds, so instead we took a bus to the Piazza del Popolo. Yet another lovely fountain and an Egyptian obelisk.

Walked down to the Spanish Steps (but didn't walk up them) window-shopping -- fantastic stores. Then to the Piazza SS. Apostoli and the Abruzzi restaurant, where I had some fabulous, tender roast lamb and Helen some pasta carbonara -- quite different from what we get in England. Very friendly non-English (I bet!) speaking waiter.

Finally it's time for gelati. San Crispino's, called by The New York Times the best gelato in Rome. Just cups, no cones. For 3000 lire you can get 3 scoops of different flavours. (In other words, a dollar fifty or a pound). Fabulous.

I can't remember what we had there, but in all we had several kinds of chocolate (with rum, lemon, etc.) all very very heavy with chocolate, rum baba flavoured ice cream, zabaione, a lemon ice cream, lime ice cream, chocolate mousse, and -- I think at San Crispino's, a great cinnamon/ginger.

>From there to the Trevi fountain. We didn't see any coins in it, so didn't throw any in -- that time. And back to the hotel for a rest. Off to San Martino ai Monti, built in the 5th century, rebuilt in the 9th, redecorated in the 17th. We were able to go down into the area below the church, where among the 8 huge rooms of an ancient Roman building is a private 3rd century chapel, with some frescoes and mosaics still partially remaining.

At 3 we met with our 'Enjoy Rome'tour guide at the Colosseum. Nice young enthusiastic Australian girl named Michelle. She gave us a very good explanation of the Colosseum and took us around it and then up past the Imperial Fora, explaining the ruins as we went (we couldn't go through them as they close early in the winter). Saw the Vitorriano in the daylight this time. In front of it is a giant bronze statue. She has a photo of the inside of the horse with 22 Italian workmen having a meal at a table inside it! This would have been just as it was completed.

The Trevi fountain once again. Another couple had also been there in the morning, but obviously before we went. They found the fountain empty of water and workmen vacuuming out the coins. This time Helen and I each threw a coin in over our left shoulders -- we're definitely coming back!.

The Piazza Navona, which still recognizes the shape of the Circus that was there -- and finally the Pantheon, that amazing still intact Roman round temple, with its huge concrete domed roof with the hole in the centre. Breathtaking.

Helen needed some socks, so from there we went to the tram stop at Largo Argentina and to a department store in Trastavere (over the river). Not a very big store -- clothes, books and food was about all. On to Dar Poeta. Trastavere at night is beautiful and fascinating -- lots of little stalls lit by electric light selling a variety of items, little side streets, etc.

Dar Poeta is famed for its pizzas, which are made of a special dough they make there. I had a pizza marinara -- just a simple tomato and herb sauce, no cheese. It's called marinara because the sailors ate it, and Italians don't eat cheese with fish. In Britain of course marinara pizza isn't marinara, it's seafood pizza. Helen had a pizza margherita. We finished off with a Pizza Bodrilla -- thinly sliced apple and Cointreau with sugar, and a tartufo. The waitress sliced the Bodrilla up into pieces and brought 2 spoons for the ice cream so that we could share it. Also finished with a traditional Limoncello. Great, friendly service.

Tuesday -- after breakfast we are asked if we want to move to a room in the refurbished part of the hotel (I haven't mentioned that there are about a dozen workmen working in the rooms near us refurbishing them). We agree, and head off to a visit to the catacombs.

There are three popular catacombs on the Appian Way, and the most popular of these closes in February. We've decided to visit a different catacomb on the Via Salaria, St. Priscilla's. The Via Salaria is a route used even before Rome was built.

We take the bus to a small square nearby, where Helen goes to look at the market and I go to the pasticerria. One fascinating custom in Rome is to have breakfast standing up either in a bar (bars serve coffee, tea, etc.) or a pasticerria -- a sugared croissant (called a cornetto) or some other pastry and espresso. I buy some chocolate there, Helen buys some presents in the market.

Outside the pasticerria there's a boy around 5 years old begging, almost certainly a refugee's child. The market was small but nice, and it was lovely to see Mimosa shrubs in bloom being sold there.

St. Priscilla's is on land probably donated by a woman named Priscilla, a Roman aristocrat. We arrived just as party of 50 Italian school children arrived, and the two English speaking young guides apologised profusely that we would have to wait half an hour as the school trip had booked a week in advance.

After about 10 minutes, however, a small nun came over to the handful of tourists now waiting and said she was our guide. (This is not the small nun with the backpack we saw on the bus earlier). Helen describes her as an 80 year old nun who could walk faster than any of us and who thought she spoke English. She was delightful, reminded me of my Grandma! She was actually very nice, and I was interested in her comment about the huge number of baby burials, which was more or less This was because they didn't have contraception.

There are about half a dozen more catacombs in the area, but they aren't generally open to the public. St. Priscilla's has 13 km of catacombs -- we only saw about 1 km. About the first thing you see when you go in is the old cryptoporticus, an underground room from her villa converted into a church.

The catacombs are basically narrow passages cut into soft tufa (volcanic stone), and within them there are mausolea, some chapels, and many, many small 'loculi', cuttings into the tufa into which bodies were placed, covered with lime so they would dissolve quickly, with the openings covered with stone, masonry or at times marble. Among other things we saw a fresco which was the earliest depiction of St. Mary. The other claim to fame was the earliest Christian chapel in Rome.

>From there we went to lunch not far from the Colosseum. Walked back to the hotel with the mandatory stop for gelati. There we found our new room -- not as nice as our old one! But a quick complaint got us changed into something satisfactory. Helen rested, I pottered about outside. We then headed over to Campo dei Fiori to see the market -- which was finished. The little pizza place I wanted to try was also shut, supposed to open again at 4 but didn't.

So off we went for a tour of the area. Wandered around some side streets, found a famous place that did fried salt cod and I got some to take away, and then back to the Campo dei Fiori and the pizza place was open. This is just a little shop where they sell pizza by the etto (100 grams). There are a couple of chairs and a shelf where you can eat, and it is supposed to be absolutely packed during the day. Very nice pizza it was too! Back to the hotel for a much needed early night.

Wednesday was our last full day. In the morning we did the area around St. John Lateran, the Cathedral of Rome and the home of the Popes for a long time. We first visited one of Rome's 4 most important churches, the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore -- which had a full size nativity scene in its crypt! We then went by bus and tram to St. Helena's church (the mother of Constantine), Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. This church was probably built within part of her imperial palace after her death. She was noteworthy for the way she collected relics, and we were able to see -- a piece of the true cross, 2 thorns from the crown of thorns, a nail from the cross, and part of St. Thomas's finger. Also quite a large part of the cross of the 'good thief'. Absolutely fascinating.

Took the tram back to St. John's Basilica -- at the stop was a kiosk selling really delicious porchetta -- roast pork sandwiches -- I don't know what they do with the pork, but it was delicious -- herbs added I presume. Before visiting St. John's we went to a large nearby market just through the walls at the top of the Appian way. This was mainly 2nd hand clothes, with also lots of interesting costumes for carnivale on sale. Helen got some earrings, I got 3 nice ties (one with dogs and cats on it) -- two were 15000 lire, the third 40000.

San Giovanni is a magnificent church. The doors were taken from the Curia of the Roman Forum -- rather old, eh?

After this we took the tram and bus to where we planned to have lunch, Cottini, a tavola calda. It had a good write-up but I found it a bit disappointing compared to tavolda caldas we visited on our last trip to Italy. On the way back to St. John's I persuaded Helen to let me go into the fabulous bakery at Largo Leopardi. All kinds of bread and pastries, and a fascinating non-alcoholic and non-sweet strawberry cocktail! Also bought some delicious rhododendron honey. Nearby was the Auditorium de Maecenas, which had been on my list of things to see but which I'd dropped thinking we wouldn't have the time. Closed at 1:30pm, but it was only 1, so we went in (small fee, about 5000 lire I think). Maecenas was a colleague and advisor of Augustus, and a fop, gourmet, and patron of the arts. He evidently had a fantastic villa in this area and the partially reconstructed auditorium is all that's left. It's got a semicircle of tiered seats suggesting that it was some sort of place for performances and readings, and we could imagine his proteges Virgil and Horace reading their works there. Still a few frescoes left, including a drunken Dionysius. We walked on mosaic tiles that Vergil might have walked on!

Finally, one of the real highlights of our trip, our underground tour. I'd looked quite a bit on the web and finally settled on Daniella Hunt, who offered us a tour of San Clemente Church and of Nero's Golden House, the Domus Aurea. I found another couple around our age on a great Internet mailing list (Travelzine), and we agreed to do the tour together.

San Clemente is amazing -- a must for any visitor to Rome. It's unique character is obvious from the moment you walk through the entrance gate in the walls surrounding it. You enter into a lovely secluded courtyard, an atrium (Daniella called it a paradisio I believe) with a fountain in the middle, a resting place for pilgrims. These have been removed from most old churches. Daniella sped us through the inside of the ground level church and deep into the depths beneath it. Down below the larger, still mainly intact 4th century church which is under the current church lie some ancient Roman buildings. The area itself was destroyed in 64 AD by fire, and there are still some remains of those old houses. This level is a labyrinth of passageways and chambers, some with tufa walls and others with brick, many with herringbone tiled floors.

There is some controversy as to exactly what some of these represent -- a residence, a granary, or a temporary mint, with one section 5th or 6th century catacombs. Another section is clearly a temple to Mithras, a Mithraeum. Although we are now deep underground, this particular Mithraeum is unusual as when it was built it was at ground level, and was constructed so that those entering it were given the impression that they were in fact going underground. From some areas you can hear the rush of water, possibly from Rome's ancient sewer the Cloaca Maxima.

The next level up is the 4th century basilica, destroyed by the Normans and filled in at the end of the 11th century and discovered again by an amateur nineteenth-century archaeologist, the Irish Dominican Father Mullooly. Daniella made the many frescoes come alive as she described them to us. They include a story of a jealous husband, whose expletive 'Fili dele pute' is the earliest known writing in the Italian vernacular.

Above this is the present day 12th century church, which still has the 6th century 'schola cantorum', the enclosure for the choir, rescued from the old church.

Off now to Nero's Golden Palace, the Domus Aurea. Entrance to and passage through this is strictly controlled. You go in as part of a larger group and are let through it by someone who points out that she is not your guide. There are audio cassettes to listen to, but we had something much better, Daniella.

After so much of Rome was destroyed in the 64 fire, Nero decided to build himself a palace, covering the larger part of 3 of Rome's seven hills, with an artificial lake (where the Colosseum now stands), gardens and woods with wild beasts running free (rus in urbe), and one of the largest residences ever built. He killed himself shortly after it was completed, and Titus and then Trajan built baths over it, removing its treasures and filling in the rooms to act as a foundation. The discovery of its amazing frescoes were one of the major sparks of the Renaissance, with some of its most famous painters lowering themselves through holes in the ceiling to study it.

Rooms from one wing of the palace have been excavated, and we were led through them. Many of them are pierced by walls for Trajan's baths, and of course the gardens are now filled in. We were still able to see some amazing frescoes and mosaics(although the one that may show a birdseye panorama of Rome is still not on show). What was also impressive was the sheer size and height of the rooms. This again is something every visitor to Rome should see. The visit is very limited timewise. Daniella knew exactly what we should see and made sure we missed nothing. I would strongly advise taking your own guide to get the best out of the visit.


Doug Weller Birmingham, England