When in Rome
We arrived in Rome after a short 1½ hour train ride from Florence. Have I mentioned how much we love traveling by train? It’s so much better than air travel — the legroom and the ability to spread out are just two reasons.
Our Rome Airbnb was called Barberini House because of its close proximity to Piazza Barberini, named after the Italian dynasty, House of Barberini, who rose to prominence in 1623 with the election of Pope Urban XIII (Cardinal Maffeo Barberini). The Barberinis were notorious for decorating their new palace with artifacts taken from Roman monuments. Today throughout Rome, you can still see monuments, sculptures and stained glass with the family’s honey bee symbol.
We decided to explore around near our flat and knew the Trevi Fountain was nearby so we headed that way. Jackie had traveled to Rome in 2014 with her friend Jodi and wanted me to see the fountain and the Spanish Steps, which were also close by. As we walked, Jackie recounted the story of tossing coins in the fountain and wishing for a romantic partner on her previous trip. Evidently, she’s really good at manifesting 🧡.
Construction began on the Trevi Fountain in 1732 by Nicola Salvi after his design was selected as the competition winner by Pope Clement XII. Salvi died during construction, and the project was completed by Giuseppe Pannini. Sandwiches, anyone?
After winding our way through the crowd at the fountain, we walked over to the Spanish Steps, a name derived from the Spanish Embassy located in the Piazza Spagna near the stairway. The official name of the steps, funded by Louis XII in the 17th century, is Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti. Near the end of our time in Rome, the fountain at the base of the steps was vandalized by climate activists who poured black paint into the fountain. We went back to the area the following day and saw no signs of the paint.
so much history
Rome’s 2,000+ year history is too much to detail here. Just know, like many countries, its history is pockmarked with scandal, deceit, murder and organized religion. The Etruscans were the original inhabitants of the hills and swamps of ancient Rome. The legend goes that Romulus was the first king of Rome and named the city after himself following a fight in which he killed his twin brother, Remus.
Rome began flourishing in the 4th century B.C. when engineers started the construction of aqueducts to bring fresh water into the city. Ironically, while in the city that literally invented plumbing, our apartment building had a constant water leak in a valve above the courtyard. The sound of the water hitting the plastic awning on the ground floor echoed up the courtyard’s walls, making it seem like we were stuck in slow-motion rainfall. This is where we discovered the magic of white noise, which helped us both sleep great. And our host let us know it’s been fixed, so you won’t have to worry about it if you rent that place (which is one of our favorites!)
Jackie and I jumped on a Hop-On, Hop-Off bus tour on the second day in Rome to better gauge the distance between the attractions we planned to visit during the week. I suggest you take it if only to understand the small distance separating the Vatican, Pantheon, Roman Forum and Colosseum (and several other historical sites in between). We also used the Metro multiple times to move easily and affordably around the city.
A colossus of a tour
Jackie takes the lead on booking our experiences in each city, and she nailed Rome!
Our walking tour of the Roman Forum and Colosseum was an immersive history experience led by our guide, Gaia. Also an archaeologist, part of her studies included working at the ongoing excavation near the Colosseum. I highly recommend booking a tour with Gaia if you travel to Rome. You’ll learn more details about Ancient Rome than you can wrap your head around.
Her tour begins at the front entrance to the Forum, and you quickly descend several meters to the original ground level of the city. Ancient Rome consisted of seven hills separated by marshes and swamps. Most people lived on the hillsides and hilltops until the Romans developed the system for draining the marshes to build more homes and shops. I won’t bore you with all of the historical details, but you can read them here if you’re interested.
Gaia taught us that gladiator fights were scripted entertainment with predetermined winners and losers (think WWE with real swords). She also shared the troubling fact that it took thousands of Jewish slaves to construct the Colosseum under the watchful eyes of Roman architects and engineers.
One of my biggest takeaways from our time in Rome was learning that Constantine turned Roman society on its ear by issuing the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, which decriminalized Christianity and led to its adoption as the empire’s official religion 67 years later. After centuries of preferential treatment, pagans found themselves, their ceremonies and traditions outlawed. Though there are many examples of pagan traditions that persevere, Easter and Christmas trees, among them.
We also toured the Vatican, including the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. It was ironic to see so many nude male statues in the Vatican at a time when the statue of David was making headlines in the United States.
The sculptures, paintings and tapestries filled each room and hallway we entered. Our tour guide, Sylvia, was well-versed in the history and pointed out details about many of the pieces we saw during the tour. She also told us to look at specific areas in the Sistine Chapel that are often overlooked. One example was Michelangelo painting the Pope’s (Paul III Farnese) Master of Ceremonies Biagio da Cesena, as Minos, in the Last Judgment.
Evidently, the painting was in response to Cesena having ridiculed Michelangelo’s nude figures. When he complained to the Pope and asked to have his likeness removed, the Pope’s response was his authority didn’t apply to the Underworld, and the image remained.
I guess Paul III Farnese and Michelangelo
shared the same sense of humor.
Near the end of our stay, we were working in a cafe and overheard a group discussing whether or not they should go to the Colosseum. Go. To. The. Colosseum! And buy your tickets in advance, preferably with a small tour group (we booked Gaia through Airbnb.)
I’d run by it earlier that day, and the lines to purchase tickets were already ridiculously long.
And then there’s the gelato
We’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting gelato in Italy. On our last full day in Rome, we discovered our favorite gelato near the Pantheon, at Gelateria Della Palma, with 150 flavors. I considered asking for a sample of each one (not a good idea in a tightly packed gelateria full of impatient customers). I settled on a salty caramel and stracciatella combination. Try it, you can thank me later.
We’ll see you in Athens!