I am pitifully poorly travelled in Italy; my trip to the gorgeous Amalfi Coast a couple of years ago was my first foray into this beautiful country, and it left me desperate for more. As such, two weeks ago, I boarded a plane to Rome in order to finally see the sights that had impressed upon my imagination the romance of Italy since childhood; the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Vatican, the lavish churches, the narrow winding lanes, the endless, surprising piazzas, the hilltop vistas…I couldn’t wait!
As the wonderfully named Leonardo rapid train from the airport neared the city, I had my first gasp of amazement as I realised we were passing through the almost two thousand year old Roman walls, around which are clustered the distinctive stone pine trees that so conjure up visions of the Italian countryside for me. On exiting the station, we hopped on a tour bus to enable us to quickly see the main sights and gather our bearings for the days ahead, and every turn along the streets had my eyes growing wide in awe. The beautiful streets lined with ochre buildings that were centuries old, and decorated with gorgeous carvings gave way onto squares with lavish churches, Roman temples, Roman monuments and gushing fountains. Medieval houses nestle amidst Roman ruins; modern day shops and restaurants stand side by side with buildings their thousand year old ancestors would still recognise. History lives in Rome in a way I have never seen it truly live elsewhere; the Romans’ footprints are everywhere, their cultures, traditions, every day habits, still in plain view. In London most evidence of this time has long been buried, but in Rome the colossal, indestructible edifices have been left standing, in varying conditions, a living testament to their belief that their Empire would stand forever.
I saw so much beauty that I thought I was at risk of developing Stendhal syndrome; there really was too much to take in. I was lucky to be visiting with a friend who not only reads Latin, but is an expert in Ancient Rome, so I was wonderfully well informed as we trotted through the streets of the city. In terms of favourite sights, there are simply too many to mention; of course the Colosseum was utterly amazing, as was St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican, and Trojan’s Column was a real wonder for me too, as I had seen the cast of it in the Cast Courts at the V&A hundreds of times when working there, and always longed to see it in the flesh. The Pantheon is truly incredible when you realise that the very modern looking ceiling and perfectly preserved decorations are all original and 2000 years old, and walking around the Forum was a pure delight. However, many of my truly most memorable moments were the unexpected ones; stumbling through the dark doorway of a church to find a masterpiece of Renaissance painting and sculptures by Michelangelo; wandering through an alleyway and finding a piazza where one side was held up by Roman columns; visiting the Palazzo Barberini after finding it down a side street and discovering the famous Caravaggio painting of Judith and Holofernes in one of its spectacular rooms; walking through a park and finding the gargantuan remains of the biggest bathhouse ever built; watching the sunset over the Rome skyline from the terrace of our hilltop hotel. Rome is a breathtaking, magical place that has to be seen to be believed. I have visited a lot of cities in my time, and it is the most beautiful I have ever seen – even more so than my beloved London, I will admit! If you haven’t been, you must go. And if you have – where should I go next time?