Ancient Rome and the Vatican

I love a weekend minibreak, but they always go by so quickly! It feels like we just arrived but we are now on a British Airways flight home. We have packed a lot into the short time we had, and I feel like I’ve seen the highlights of Rome.

Yesterday morning started with the hotel breakfast that I had been eagerly looking forward to, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. It was a varied buffet, offering 4 different types of mozzarella amongst other cheeses, a table dedicated breads ranging from rolls to rye slices, hot foods such as scrambled eggs, sautéed potatoes and grilled tomatoes, pancakes, exotic fruits with nuts and seeds, yoghurts, cereals and a plethora is sweet treats like fruit tartlets, pastries and cakes. On top of this, you could order custom omelettes and other egg dishes and fresh coffee was brought to the table.

Feeling full, we headed out to explore more of Rome’s sights. Ancient Rome – the colosseum and the forum – was top on the agenda, but we meandered gradually in that direction from the hotel so that we could see as many streets and piazzas as possible along the way. There were so many beautiful buildings, from individual homes to the most grandiose of churches. The thing that really sets Rome apart from other cities is the sheer volume of monuments and historical buildings. Even in 3 days, I saw so much that I almost started to become desensitised. It’s easy to just walk down the street, lost in thought, then suddenly notice there is an ancient ruin on one side of you and a beautiful basilica the other. I didn’t want to switch off even for a moment, as there was so much to take in. This was demonstrated fully when we ended up in a piazza, not really knowing where we were, and one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen was towering above. I looked it up to see what it was, and I’d never even heard of it. I’m sure Romans and Rome aficionados are very familiar with this structure, the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument, but one of the most spectacular sights in Rome hadn’t even been on my radar. There are just so many breathtaking spectacles in this city.

We found the Colosseum, which was glorious but the crowds of tourists stretched along the whole road leading there while tour guides, ticket touts and people selling tacky merchandise and selfie sticks were accosting us from all angles. I would have liked to see inside, but it wasn’t worth the queueing so we just walked around the outside and found a few more secluded spots to view it from. The age and the scale of the Colosseum are overwhelming, and it is the first thing most people think of when they think of Rome. It’s a beautiful piece of history, and darting down some side streets, it wasn’t difficult to escape the overwhelming crowd. We happened across some other ancient ruins, and found some great views of the Colosseum in spots that were a bit more relaxed. We spent the rest of the day meandering through the city, through parks, and the plazas that are the very essence of Roman culture. We ended up back by the Villa Borghese, which turned out to be much larger than I had realised and had stables and a petting zoo, and some big event going on. We stopped in a cafe, and I had a bowl of gelato – pistachio and caramel – perfectly creamy and full of flavour. There are, of course, many places in Italy selling gelato – the tip for finding the good quality ones is to avoid the places where you see it piled high in the tubs, as this means it isn’t freshly made on the premises. Bright colours are a warning sign too.

We walked back through the park (and lost our way and ended up back where we had started) then went back to the hotel to work out in the gym. I could get used to having an entire fitness studio just downstairs from my room! We spent some more time just relaxing in the Villa Borghese which I had become very found of, and we watched the world go by.
For the evening, we had booked dinner at a very fancy restaurant called Brunello. As is the Italian way, we preceded the meal with an aperitivo at a nearby bar, sitting outside to soak up the end of the hot sun. I had an Aperol Spritz, the drink I most associate with Italy. All over, in the evening you will see people drinking this bright orange concoction, which is bitter but refreshing. Brunellois classy but still laid back, with a lounge style vibe with a bar area, then the restaurant behind. The menu is pretty special and exciting. My starter of Spring vegetables with blue goats cheese, quails eggs, parsley and caper emulsion was fresh and light with intense flavours. For the main course, I had a breaded poached egg with its perfectly runny yolk, with asparagus and a creamy, cheesy mouse. This course was much richer, but again, sensational in its taste. Desert was a millefuille with a rhubarb cream and I even broke my ‘no caffeine after 4pm’ rule, as a coffee really completed the meal. I haven’t even mentioned the wine yet! It was a brunello di montalcino – pretty full on but more delicate and refined than the wine the previous night. I loved it, and have made up my mind to explore more Italian wines now. I was blown away by the whole meal – the best I have had in a long time. We finished the evening with a drink in the hotel bar and it was great bonding time with my Dad. I am very lucky to have him and I don’t take that for granted.

Today we had our tour of the Vatican booked, which I had been looking forward to. I’m in two minds about doing tours when I travel – on one hand I like to explore for myself, stumble across things and do my own research, but on the other, most tour guides really are experts in their field and deliver much more information and insight. I’d been advised to book a tour for the Vatican, as it is a way of avoiding the horrendous queues. It was through a company called City Walks, and you can book online in advance. However, there are countless companies and it looked like you could just rock up and join some of the groups. We had headsets on so we could hear the guide, Sylvia, clearly. She led us through the vast Vatican Museums, stopping to tell us about the history, the various popes, and Raphael and Michaelangelo. We paused for some time in the courtyard in the beaming sun while she told us about the painting of the Sistine Chapel and talked through the different biblical images. (As talking is not allowed inside, we had to be briefed on the backstory beforehand). We went through many rooms with high, painted ceilings, including one with enormous maps that had been gathered solely on foot and were surprisingly accurate. Some of the rooms were packed with people, so it was hard to concentrate as Sylvia explained how to identify a Raphael painting from a replica. We had to rush most of the rooms as there is just too much to see. Apparently if you took 60 seconds to look at each painting in the Vatican Museum, you would be in there for 12 years.

Stepping into the Sistine chapel was total magic. I’d seen so many pictures, and heard so much hype that I thought it may not live up to that, but it in fact surpassed expectations. The size of the space teamed with the intricacy of the painting made it seem impossible. That most famous image on the ceiling, the Creation of Adam, enthralled me. The first year of my drama degree, I devised a performance based on this image so I feel somehow connected to it.

The tour took us on to St Peter’s basilica. This cathedral is built upon the bones of Peter himself. I’d been blown away when I saw St Mark’s basilica in Venice last year, but this one was even bigger, even more decorative and even more sacred. I used to work at a Catholic charity and I find the religion fascinating. The statue of Mary holding baby Jesus exuded beauty, and the murals across the walls were done by mosaic rather than paint so they do not age. There were markings on the floor showing the size of other cathedrals worldwide and the space they would occupy compared to St Peter’s.

After popping back to the hotel for our bags, we took a taxi to the airport. I was really sad to leave, but immensely grateful for the 3 days. We didn’t even scratch the surface of things to do and see in Rome, but I will be back, I’m sure. It was very special to share the experience with my Dad. While I love travelling solo, travelling with lived ones can be brilliant. My Dad and I agreed to go away again next year, so watch this space!