This is the third post in the City break in Rome
Second day in Rome: historical sightseeing
Yesterday I woke up far too early in the Premier Inn by Stansted airport and rushed to catch a plane. This morning was a much calmer affair, waking up in the lovely hotel bed and throwing on some clothes before heading down the corridor to the breakfast room by reception. There were only 4 tables so we had to wait a couple of minutes. I had wondered if there was anything special about an Italian breakfast, but aside from some very nice pastries it was pretty much the same as at home. Cereal, yogurt, juice and a nice coffee to get you going. I think I had hoped for some cold meats but maybe I’ll find some later in the day! So time to get ready and get out into Rome to see the ancient sites. Today’s plan was to see the Roman Forum and the Colosseum.
Out the door and off down the street to find a bus down to the Roman Forum, it took us getting on a bus to find you need to buy the ticket first. Top tip: bus tickets can be bought from tobacco shops and cafes. After a short bus ride we jumped off just by the main entrance to one of Rome’s largest archaeological sites, the Roman Forum. I’d recommend getting there early as there is a lot to see and the forum covers quite a large area. We bought our tickets and headed inside, to find that there is very little by the way of information, so headed out again very quickly to find either an audio guide or a tour group. We quickly ran into a tour guide offering tours a little more than the cost of an audio guide. I highly recommend getting a guide as there is so much to see. Our guide was quite knowledgeable about ancient Rome, having come from the USA to study classics several years ago and staying since.
“Rome is like a lasagne” he said. Layers sit on layers. Things were torn down and rebuilt, or simply built on top of. I learned that much of the marble which today sits in Vatican City was taken from the Roman Forum during the Vatican’s construction, leaving pot marks across the ruined buildings. I don’t think I can convey how fascinating it is to have walked down the very heart of the Roman capital and see streets and building Emperors walked on. The Roman senate house (or Curia Julia) still stands intact and seemed, from the outside, much as it would have done two thousand years ago. The Forum is centered on the Sacra Via, the main street through Rome which linked the Arch of Titus , Temples of Saturn and Vesta and all the main buildings of the city centre. Ask your guide to point out the “Umbilicus urbis Romae”. This stone marked the centre of not just Rome, but the Roman world. All distances in the Empire were marked from this spot.
Part of the Forum complex, from the Palatine Hill you can get a good view out across the city of Rome. Its a good place to hike up to, to get a complete view of the forum set out below. It really helps to convey the size and scale of what would once have been there. The gardens here are still quite nice, though not a shadow of what they would have been when emperor’s walked among them. The Palatine Hill was where the imperial residence was and where we derive the word palace. Rather chillingly the last man who built his palace here was the 20th century dictator, Mussolini. If you want you can see his palace, maybe too close in history just now for me.
As I mentioned we had a great guide around the Roman Forum, and later the Colosseum. I found I learned so much more and could really appreciate what I was seeing. There are lots of tour companies, but the one we went with was really good and I highly recommend them, you can find them on What a life tours. My favourite fact was about the material, red porphyry. It was quarried from a particular place in Egypt and today has been used up. There were spectacular pillars and doors made of this, but what was surprising was the bath of Emperor Nero, which today is in the Vatican. Its value has been estimated at four hundred million Euros!
As we came to the end of the Roman Forum tour, the guide said he was heading to the Colosseum to run a tour there, inviting anyone for our group to go too. As we were going to head there next anyway and the tour had been really good at the Forum, we decided to go for that tour too. The Colosseum is literally across a street from the edge of the forum and in the imperial days would have been linked to the centre of town by the Sacra Via. Today the Colosseum flanks the Forum with the Alter of the Fatherland at the other end.
As we approached the Colosseum I thought it was really imposing to see and when the guide showed us pictures of how it would have looked two thousand years ago it really takes your breath away. Bearing in mind that most of Europe was living in mud huts when this was built in 79AD it’s evening more astounding. The Colosseum today is being repaired to shore it up after centuries of looting since the fall of the Western Empire and walking around you can see the holes in the wall where people dug in to remove the valuable lead to sell. Walking around the stadium and looking at the arena (the Roman word for the fine sand used in amphitheatre floors) I got a very vivid sense of the Roman world. The history of the Colosseum is incredibly bloody with uncounted thousands having been killed for sport here. When you hear about everything which went on here, especially the job of Beastmaster.
After hearing about just a little of the history of the Flavian Amphitheatre, from its construction by Jewish slaves to the 5000 people killed during the inaugural games, you get a feel for how violent things were in day-to-day Roman life. To me it seems strange when you think people come here to take wedding photos and that every year the Catholic church holds Mass on the arena floor. A strange place to visit.
After two very good tours it was time to get some lunch, another nice set menu from a local restaurant. We went back to the Forum to look around some more and after spending a large part of the day there I could go back and see all the parts I missed this first time.
Piazza Navona & Tre Scalini Tartufo
Whilst we had a lovely dinner on our first night in Rome I asked our guide, a Roman himself, to recommend a place for dinner. He suggested we head over to Piazza del Fico and to Restaurant del Fico for a great meal. We had a lovely dinner there and I will share that in another post very soon. After our excellent dinner we wandered through the narrow streets to the beautiful Piazza Navona.
Piazza Navona was built on the site of the Stadium of Domitian and follows its outline. Instead of hosting chariot racing, today it is home to sights such as the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (fountain of the four rivers) and the Obelisk of Domitian. Piazza Navona is a great spot for nightlife, with a number of nice looking restaurants and cafes to dine in. We went there on a couple of evenings and each time it was quite lively with a lot of people eating and drinking well into the night. As I said we did have dinner at the restaurant recommended to us by our guide, but I had another idea for dessert. Piazza Navona is home to Tre Scalini which since 1946 serves one of Rome’s most famous desserts, The Black Truffle, or Tartufo.
It’s incredibly rich chocolate ice cream with solid chocolate on the outside and a mountain of whipped cream to rival any of Rome’s seven hills. According to their website it is made with several different cocoa’s from around the world. For me it was one of the culinary highlights of the trip. I know you might think “its just a chocolate ice cream, how good can it be?” Well the answer is really, really good. It took a little while to finish it as the Tre Scalini Black Truffle is really rich, but well worth it.
We finished our second evening in Rome with a drink in Tre Scalini, looking out on the square, then a wander past the Trevi Fountain back to our hotel on the other side of town.
Recipe, text and photos By Russell Bowes