EVER wonder what showtime must have been like at Rome’s Colosseum? Cast your mind back to Ireland and Italy’s recent rugby showdown at the Stadio Olimpico. The Six Nations is as close as rugby gets to all-out gladiatorial combat: by the time the Irish and Italian teams were done tearing chunks out of each other, bruised and battered bodies were legion.
Thankfully, visitors over the next month or two don’t have to go through the same pain barriers. Rome is one of one of Europe’s best cities, and this is one of the best times to visit it. In summer, the temperatures can be nasty; the over-crowding even more so. But come April, the air is fresh, the flowers are in bloom, and there’s space for everyone on the sidewalk.
Not that Rome can be covered by walking alone (unless you’re looking for an excuse to buy a new pair of Italian brogues, that is), but it works brilliantly if you target an area — Trastevere, the Vatican or the historical centre, say — exploring on foot before hopping the bus, metro or hailing a taxi along to the next district, and starting all over again.
I kicked off along the Via del Corso, a central strip that doubles as open-air shopping mall and a historical timeline. Stores like Zara and Fellini are interspersed with random spots like Goethe’s house (No 18) and Galleria Doria Pamphilji (No 305), with its collection of works by Brueghel, Caravaggio, Velázquez and others. Along the way, I passed gum-chewing priests, motorcycle Carabinieri, wide-eyed tourists and businessmen in impossibly sharp suits.
From there, I dipped off into the maze of cobbled alleyways leading (in a very roundabout way) to Piazza Navona. Built on the site of a Roman athletic stadium, the square here still retains its ancient shape, though the chariots have long since been replaced by baroque fountains, open-air bars, and a melange of market stalls, galleries and caricaturists.
Getting lost between the two — and later, getting lost on my way from Piazza Navona to the Spanish Steps — was, of course, the whole point of the exercise. Finding a pint-sized Fiat 500 squeezed between scooters down a cobblestoned alley was, for me, as exciting as stumbling into a church on the Piazza del Popolo to find two canvases by Caravaggio. This is the fantasy, and the frustration, with Rome. Take a walk up the Campidoglio, one of the seven famous hills, and you’ll find a piazza designed by Michelangelo. Mosey down a laneway, and all of a sudden you emerge in a little square fronting onto the Pantheon. The city is crawling with masterpieces, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Throw summer heat and teeming crowds on top of lengthy itineraries, and all of a sudden you begin to understand why many of the tourists traipsing after flag-toting guides have such a glazed look in their eyes. Rome may be eternal, but no one ever said it was easy.
Their exasperation is nothing new. “Rome reminds me of a man who lives by exhibiting to travellers his grandmother’s corpse,” wrote James Joyce, visiting in 1906.
But this is spring, remember? Visitors in March and April don’t have that suffocating heat or crowds to deal with. It’s the perfect time to poke around old bones like the Forum, the Colosseum or the remains of Ostia, a 30-minute train ride out of town, without feeling like the next corpse on exhibition will be your own.
Ancient Rome is hosting some new openings this year, too. Three archaeological sites previously closed to the public have begun taking visitors: the Villa di Massenzio on the Appian Way, with its Roman circus and mausoleum, the Museo delle Mura, a new museum built into Porta San Sebastiano, and Sepolcro degli Scipioni — Scipio’s tomb from the third century BC.
Rome may no longer be the world’s largest city, but it continues to host its smallest sovereign state. The Vatican City sits on a hill just west of the River Tiber, and global media have been glued to it since Pope Benedict XVI announced his retirement.
Now that the white smoke has issued, and Pope Francis is installed as Benedict’s successor, the Vatican gardens and Sistine Chapel are back open to the public. Crowds continue to mill around St Peter’s Basilica and Piazzo Dan Pietro, of course, so be sure to choose your moment carefully to get at least a sense of these famous spaces before they turn into a zoo.
Whatever else you do in the Vatican, don’t miss the Sistine Chapel. I’m as dubious as the next man about the pomp and ceremony of the Catholic Church, but walking into this sanctified space, I had to scoop my jaw off the floor. Michelangelo’s ceiling is a mind-blowing piece of work — apparently he and Pope Julius II fought to the extent that the pope punched the artist, but the result is a 500-year-old exercise in astonishment. No amount of internet or TV prepares you for seeing the frescoes in the flesh.
Afternoons are best for visiting the museums — when slightly thinner crowds allow for an appreciation of a complex as intricate as any papal encyclical. Everything from Egyptian treasures to 15th century tapestries are on view, though I made a beeline for the stunning Raphael Rooms, whose frescoes ring in yet another Renaissance high watermark.
Pope Francis will take a starring role in Rome’s Easter ceremonies this weekend, but your best chance of seeing him on a routine basis is to pop along to St Peter’s Square at noon on Sundays, when he blesses the people from the second window to the right of the Apostolic Palace.
Easter isn’t all about religion, of course. It’s also when Romans start to see spring lamb, Colomba cake and artichoke appear on city menus. There’s a stretch in the evenings. Al fresco tables become more comfortable in the warming air. You might even catch a smile from one of Rome’s notoriously brusque waiters.
I’ve always been conflicted about this great city. When it all gets the better of me, and I take on too much, it feels like work. I start to see its dirty side, its graffiti, its snarling traffic and its complete indifference to the tourists that pay so many of its citizens’ wages.
When I pace it right, however, a whole other city shines through. I see the vibrant buds of spring, layers of history braided through it like the rings of a tree, fantastic food, and the beauty of its ancient art and architecture. The Italian gladiators may have put Ireland to the sword, but for the rest of us, it’s the perfect time to enjoy a few days in this enchanting place.
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies direct from Dublin to Da Vinci airport (a 30-minute train connection to the city costs €11). Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies from Dublin to Ciampino, 15km from the city centre (you’ll pay €4 for the 30-minute coach transfer).
Where to stay
It pays to book in advance in Rome. I stayed at a funky three-star, Hotel Romae (hotelromae.com) near Termini, and another budget option is Relais Palazzo Taverna (relaispalazzotaverna.com) near Piazza Navona. Both have doubles starting from €100. For luxury, consider Babuino 181 (romeluxurysuites/babuino), from around €260.
Going to press, Ebookers had flights with three nights at the four-star Camping Village in Rome from €354pp, based on a late March departure from Dublin.
Where to eat
Cucina Romana is all about family recipes and unfussy ingredients (though of course, you can break the bank on fine dining too). For pizza, try the 75-year-old Pizzeria Remo on Piazza di Santa Maria Liberatrice, for Roman classics Flavio al Velavevodetto (flavioalvelavevodetto.it), and for trattorias, pretty much anywhere in Trastevere.
Where to shop
Cola di Rienzo, north of the Vatican, is popular with Romans, and the shopping streets between Via del Corso and Piazza di Spagna are pure Italian class (with prices to match). The hand-tailored menswear at Brioni (Via Barberini, 79) has attracted many famous visitors, including Clark Gable, Kofi Annan and Pierce Brosnan.
When in Rome
A Roma Pass costs €30 and entitles holders to three days of travel on public transport, as well as various museum discounts. The Vatican (mv.vatican.va) operates a dress code forbidding shorts and bare shoulders. For more on Rome see turismoroma.it.
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