January, 2015. The high-speed frecchiarossa train from Florence to Rome sped through the Italian countryside. As the train reached the outskirts of the city I noticed camps with huts and bonfires by the railway track. These could have been the homes of migrants from Africa and the Middle East, or those of some of the roughly 8,000 Roma people who live in poor conditions on the fringes of the city. Upon leaving the station we headed for our accommodation. It was in the Piazza di Spagna by the Spanish Steps.
The Spanish Steps, or Scalinata di Trinità dei Monte, is a grand polished stone stairway which cascades down the Pincian Hill to Piazza di Spagna. In the piazza is a fountain, the Fontana della Barcaccia, designed by Pietro Bernini. Sandy-coloured buildings with shuttered windows surround the square. While we were staying here the front of the church at the top of the steps, the Trinità dei Monti, was covered by a huge poster advertising Bulgari. The luxury jeweler funded a project to restore the Steps later that year.
The apartment we stayed in was inside the Keats-Shelley House, above the museum. It had lovely high ceilings and wooden furniture. The kitchen had a decorative blue and white tiled floor. From my bedroom window I could hear the running water of the Fontana della Barcaccia and the clattering of horses’ hooves on the cobblestones of the piazza. The coachmen would arrive early each morning with their bottichella (small barrel) horse-drawn carriages and wait to take tourists on rides around the city.
On our first morning in Rome we visited Piazza del Popolo, which was the main entrance to the city during the time of the Empire. In its centre is the Flaminio Obelisk, carved from granite during the reign of Eygptian Pharaoh Seti I. This was later brought to Rome from Egypt on the order of Emperor Augustus. A group of four small fountains (Fontane dell’Obelisco) surround the obelisk.
We continued our walk, stopping outside the Museum of the Ara Pacis. The concrete and glass structure houses the Ara Pacis Augustae (or Altar of the Augustan Peace), a monument built in honour of the emperor Augustus.
We visited the Pantheon, the best-preserved building from ancient Rome. It was completed during the reign of Emperor Hadrian and is thought to have been designed as a temple for Roman gods. The Pantheon was the first Roman pagan temple to be consecrated as a Christian church, which it continues to function as today. The building comprises three sections: a portico with sixteen granite columns, a massive domed rotunda and a rectangular area that links the other two sections. At the top of the dome is an uncovered oculus, or opening. This allows light in to illuminate the rotunda. Being uncovered it also lets rain in, which falls on to a convex floor and drains in to the still-functioning Roman drainpipes underneath. The Pantheon is the burial place of the Italian kings Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto I as well as the Renaissance painter Raphael.
In front of the Pantheon is the Piazza della Rotonda. This takes its name from the building’s informal title, the church of Santa Maria Rotonda. In its centre lies a huge Renaissance fountain, the Fontana del Pantheon, which was designed by sculptor and architect Giacomo Della Porta. On top of the fountain stands an Egyptian obelisk, the Obelisco Macuteo, named after its previous location in Piazza di San Macuto.
In the popular tourist areas there were men trying to sell roses and selfie sticks to passers-by. Street vendors were selling roasted chestnuts (caldarroste), a popular delicacy in Italy during the winter months.
After visiting the Pantheon we wandered into Piazza Navona, a lively square with street performers and painters. It was built on the site of the Stadium of Domitian which once hosted around 20,000 spectators for athletic games. The piazza boasts three fountains: the Fountain of Neptune, the Fountain of the Four Rivers and the Fountain of the Moor.
Having seen it on on a travel documentary, we decided to visit the Caffè Greco, the oldest coffee bar in Rome. It has red velvet seats and walls that are decorated with portraits and landscape paintings. The waiters are smartly dressed in black and white suits. I ordered a Marrocino, a mixture of espresso, cocoa and milk.
Sunken twenty feet below street level is the Largo di Torre Argentina, a complex of ancient temple ruins that was excavated in 1929. Since then it has been a haven for stray and abandoned cats. For decades they were cared for and fed by the gattare, or cat ladies, up until 1993 when an official cat sanctuary charity was established. The cats can be seen running, jumping and lying amongst the ruins. I found Largo di Torre Argentina a relaxing and uplifting place to visit.
We spent some time in Villa Borghese Gardens which was just a short walk from our accommodation. It is one of the largest urban parks in Europe and has tree-lined avenues, museums, fountains, statues and villas.
We went to see the Mouth of Truth, or Bocca della Verità, which is housed in the portico of the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. The Mouth of Truth depicts the face of a pagan god which most Romans believe to be the ancient god of the River Tiber. It is carved in to a giant marble disk. Medieval legend has it that if someone was to put their hand inside the mouth and tell a lie, it would be bitten off! There was a long queue of people waiting to have their photo taken with the sculpture. This is common as the Mouth of Truth is world-famous and featured in the Hollywood film ‘Roman Holiday’ with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck.
One night we went to Gregory’s jazz bar, which is tucked away on a quiet street that runs up to the top of the Spanish Steps. Mirrors and pictures of famous jazz musicians and singers adorn the interior walls. The shelves behind the bar are well-stocked with a wide selection of drinks. We went upstairs to a busy room where a jazz trio was playing, comprising a pianist, a drummer and a bass player.
On our last day in Rome we left the apartment and headed to Termini train station via the Metro. I was disappointed to find the walls of the Metro were covered in graffiti and the chipboard hoardings that lined the corridor we walked along had been kicked in.
On the train a Roma man and woman played music while a little girl stood in front of them holding a tin for people to drop money into.
Writing this post has involved delving into Rome’s rich history and has given me a deeper appreciation of the landmarks, fountains, buildings and sculptures that I saw. I wasn’t able to see Trevi Fountain during my stay however, as between June 2014 and November 2015 it was closed for a major renovation. I would therefore especially like to see this fountain, Rome’s largest and most famous, when I visit again.