Traveling to Italy this spring may be one of the top 2017 highlights for the year. Between touring the city, eating Italian food, and escaping to Anzio Beach down the coast, we covered a lot of ground over the course of the week.
Touring the City: Rome’s Fountains, Churches, Piazzas and ancient Ruins
We arrived Sunday and first thing, on Monday morning, we did a bike tour of the city. For those of you that know me, I love biking so this was a great way to get to know the city and get some exercise in the process. We rode around the city for about 4 hours and covered about 16km, with stops for detailed explanations and short walkabouts around each site with our guide. (In case you are curious, biking in Rome was not scary at all and I felt safe the entire time with our guide.)
Our first stop on the tour was the Colosseum. Its massive size is nothing short of impressive. The site, of course, was home to the great gladiatorial contests and public spectacles such as animal hunts, executions, re-enactments of famous battles, and dramas based on Classical mythology. We returned to the Colosseum later in the day to tour the interior as well (this was a separate guided tour that lasted about an hour).
The next stop on the tour was Venezia Square where we saw the Trajan Column (noted by graphic designers for the roman capital letterforms found at the base; letterforms introduced by the Romans and still used today) and the National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II (also known as Mussolini’s Typewriter or The Wedding Cake), which is currently the home of a fine art and history museum. We stopped for an espresso (and to make a wish) at the largest Baroque fountain in the city, Trevi Fountain. There is a tremendous amount of classical sculpture and architecture in Rome. There are fountains and sculptures in every square and there is a square every block. The entire city is a museum. We continued past the famous Spanish Steps that connect Piazza di Spagna at the base of the staircase with Piazza Trinità dei Monti at the top. We returned back to both of these areas for shopping and nightlife later in the week.
We adventured onward to The Pantheon, which literally means “the temple of every god.” The beautiful building is now a Catholic church, like most churches in Rome, but was once a roman temple. The building is circular with a portico of large granite Corinthian columns under a pediment. A rectangular vestibule links the porch to the rotunda, which is under a coffered concrete dome, with a central opening (oculus) to the sky. Where the sun god stood, underneath the center of the oculus, a beam of light enters, almost functioning like a working sun dial. Located around the sun god, on the inside perimeter of the rotunda, stood 12 other gods. Now there are Christian frescos, alters, and sculptures that occupy those spaces. The interior is stunning and many other domes, including ones found in the Vatican, are modeled after this building.
Next, we visited two plazas that were my favorite spots in town that we would visit again for dinner and drinks. The first: Piazza Navona is home to some of my favorite fountains in Rome, one of which is pictured as the feature image of this article. The plaza is a rounded-rectangular shape with the fountains and sculptures in its center. The main street of the plaza used to be a track and hosted many roman races. The second: Campo de’ Fiori, also known as the executioner plaza, is where a famous philosopher, Giordano Bruno was burned alive in the 1600s for believing that the planet was not flat, nor the center of the universe. It is the only plaza in Rome that does not have a church. Instead, there is a sculpture in the center of the plaza (quite daunting actually) dedicated to Bruno as a martyr to freedom of thought. It faces the Vatican directly. The inscription on the base reads: A BRUNO – IL SECOLO DA LUI DIVINATO – QUI DOVE IL ROGO ARSE (To Bruno – the century predicted by him – here where the fire burned).
We crossed the Tiber river into a trendy neighborhood called Trastevere. The neighborhood includes a beautiful church, Trastevere Santa Maria, which we stopped and toured the interior briefly. After which, we crossed back over the river and walked by Portico di Ottavia and Theater of Marcellus. We cycled up the (one and only) hill on the tour, to Capitoline Hill. There we had an excellent view of the Roman Forum below us.
Day Trips Outside of the City: Aqueduct Park & Anzio Beach
On Tuesday, we took the subway outside of the city to Parco Degli Acquedotti and walked the trails through the ancient remains of the roman aqueducts. The aqueducts brought water to the bathhouses of the city center.
After the conference (yes, I did attend a conference too; I’ll be posting a follow-up article specifically about the conference and my research soon), on Friday, we took the train (3,5 euro) to Anzio Beach, taking in some lovely countryside on the way, and enjoying the relaxing, non-touristy beach town. Actually, if you are looking for non-touristy things to do, both Anzio Beach and Aqueduct Park may be perfect spots for you.
Let’s Talk About Food:
Per my normal start to any vacation, I eat pretty regularly to how I would normally eat, paying attention to things like portion sizes and macronutrients for each meal. But, it didn’t take long before I started saying yes to the post-dinner dessert and espresso fourth meal. I had the best coffee, wine, tiramisu, and cheesecake while in Rome. Luckily, we were walking miles across town every day so I didn’t bring any extra pounds home with me, miraculously. If I had to choose, I would consider my dessert choices to be the best, but as you might suspect, the pasta and pizza choices were a close second. I had some of my favorite foods right away, the carbonara, a delicious cream sauce pasta dish cooked with egg and lard (ya, it’s good), a classic lasagna, and a killer “dried beef” pizza with rocket salad (dried beef is sort of like a salami). At the end of the week, I tried a few different seafood pasta dishes. I enjoyed the clams, mussels, and shrimp pasta; it was tossed in a red sauce and tasted light and fresh. Ray tried swordfish at Anzio Beach, which was very good and I tried a fish ravioli (it was a little too fishy for me). I think the seafood was good in Italy, but it definitely wasn’t my favorite thing I ate (no contest to the tiramisu and carbonara). At the end of the day, my seafood preference is still Atlantic (New-England seafood) and Gulf shores seafood.
Navigating the City:
The metro was a great way to understand the basic layout of the city. It was very easy to navigate, helping us find the places and sites we were looking for (especially with my not-so-dependable GPS connection). A 24-hour pass was 7 euro, which included all city public transit in and around Rome. We also enjoyed walking the city, as most of the places we were visiting were within a couple miles of each other. That being said, we did get lost and turned-around quite a bit (probably at least once/day) while on foot, so a map is a must. I blame this on the old-style city planning layout systems and curvy, round-about streets and plazas. When we thought we were walking in one direction, the road would twist around and we would be walking in another direction. After one week, I had a pretty good sense of where everything was, generally speaking, but I probably needed one more week to get a better sense of walking orientation and landmarks. Still, it was so fun. I would recommend a lot of walking and riding the metro to get your bearings around town. And, the good news is public transit is cheap (because that plane ticket was not).
The Duke Hotel Review:
In short, I would not recommend staying at this hotel for a few reasons, but I have also listed some of the pros in an effort to be objective. Pros: The room was comfortable with a nice bathroom and tub. It was slightly warm and stuffy, with less air circulation than I am typically used to, but this is not uncommon for European cities and there was a bay window that we left open for fresh air. The included breakfast was great—eggs, bacon, oatmeal, fruits, pastries, coffee, the works. But, there was no coffee machine (or electric kettle for instant coffee/tea) in the room (this was a first for me and I travel quite a bit; I don’t think this is common in Europe, but I could be wrong). Although not a deal breaker, this was a huge negative for me.
Cons: I was very unimpressed with the customer service regarding the concierge staff. Most of them were not well-informed, helpful, or friendly. After a week of continuous disappointment, we finished our trip frustrated with the hotel, right up to the moment of reserving a cab for the airport ride to go home, which was 20 minutes late and priced incorrectly. For a location that is less than ideal (and a shuttle service that they advertise, but is not helpful) and a price per night that is mediocre at best, I would not recommend staying here. There are much better neighborhoods in Rome that would surely compete with the Duke’s amenities, be comparable in price, be better situated in the city, and staff more friendly and approachable front managers and concierges.
If and when I return I would consider staying in Trastevere (my favorite neighborhood we visited, with the best walking scenery and dinner/nightlife choices), or somewhere near the Piazza Navona/Campo de’ Fiori plazas.
The Final Tour: The Vatican City museums and the Sistine Chapel
We only had one-half day left in Rome and so we decided to visit Vatican City to see the religious and cultural sites such as St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museums. The Sistine Chapel, as you would imagine is breathtaking (no pictures were allowed to be taken in the chapel because it is a place of worship)—the paintings, tapestries, and sculptures in the museums are some of the best I’ve ever seen. Our guided tour ended in St. Peter’s Square, which is a large plaza located directly in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. Both the square and the basilica are named after Saint Peter, an apostle of Jesus and the first Catholic Pope.
What a wonderful trip to Rome. If we go again, there are two things that I would love to do that didn’t get to happen this time around. They are: