PassPorter Guide and regular newsletter contributor Cheryl Pendry explores one of Italy's biggest draws | International Travel |


A Tale of Two Cities

by Cheryl Pendry, PassPorter Featured Columnist
Last modified 06-01-2011

Think of places to visit in Europe and usually England is up there, followed by France with its romantic capital, but Italy is usually somewhere in the mix as well. PassPorter Guide and regular newsletter contributor Cheryl Pendry explores one of the country’s biggest tourist draws…

Home to the Roman Empire more than two thousand years ago, Italy is a country that’s today well known not just for its history, but also its art, architecture, designer fashion and even its soccer. At the southern end of Europe, it enjoys scorching heat in the summer, but cold and sometimes damp weather in the winter months.

Turn to any brochure or website about the country and you’ll quickly discover that one of the most popular destinations is Italy's capital, Rome.

To me, Rome is very much a city of two halves – both dominated by the past, with one centered on the city’s history and the other inspired by spirituality.

The first stop for many visitors to this city is the Coliseum, which in its heyday nearly 2,000 years earlier would have seated 50,000 spectators, all eagerly awaiting the next gladiatorial combat. Despite all the films you may have seen on this subject, nothing prepares you for going into what remains of the Coliseum. A modern floor allows you to stand where the gladiators would have battled for their lives all those years ago and a quick look around brings home just how many people would have been there awaiting the outcome. From this point of view, you can also see the underground vaults and tunnels used to house the animals and slaves. It’s impossible not to stand there and hear the cries of the crowd and also wonder in awe at how much of this structure still stands all these thousands of years later. It’s a testament to the work of Roman builders.

It’s not the only remnant from the Roman Empire. Next door is the Forum, full of remains of temples, lining a processional route that was once used by victorious generals. Dating as far back as 500 BC, it’s easy to imagine how impressive this road once was. To the south of these remains lies Circus Maximus, now a grassy area, but once used for chariot races and animal fights.

A little further into the modern city is the Pantheon, a place of worship for nearly 2,000 years, now surrounded by cafés with their outside tables. Be sure to visit this on a dry day. In the center of the Pantheon's dome is a circle that’s open to elements, meaning on a rainy day, you will get wet. When the sun streams in through it, it is truly beautiful.

Staying with the Roman theme, a worthwhile trip outside of the city is to the Baths of Caracalla, which would have contained hot, warm and cold baths and shows just how important fitness was all those years ago. It seems that some things never change!

Another famous area of Rome that draws visitors is in fact a state of its own – the smallest in the world. Vatican City gained its sovereignty in 1929 and may only be home to around 1,000 people, but it’s certainly best known for one resident – the Pope, although there are many other reasons why Vatican City attracts over three million visitors each year. Perhaps the two best known attractions in the Vatican are St. Peter’s Basilica and Square. The square is known worldwide for the crowds that gather for Papal addresses. The views are superb from both the square and the top of the Basilica, and the Basilica is well worth a tour as well.

Another must-do on most visitors’ to-do lists are the Vatican museums. Like all good attractions, the best is saved until the end – the Sistine Chapel. But on the way there are plenty of sights to see and once you’ve visited these museums, no palace will ever amaze you again. You’re not going to see anything more stunning than the interior of these museums. The corridors and galleries are full of fine art collections and beautifully decorated ceilings and walls. It’s almost too much to take in.

Other famous sights in Rome that shouldn’t be missed include the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps, dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. There are also numerous palaces, squares and architectural delights to take in – you certainly won’t be short of things to do on any visit to Rome!

A couple of words of warning about the city though – firstly, it’s not a city that lends itself to driving – you have to be made of stern stuff to even attempt it. As a pedestrian though, you need to take care. Cars and motorbikes hurtle along at quite a speed, often without regard for you if you’re trying to cross the road. Public transportation won’t deliver you to many of the main tourist sights either. Unsurprisingly, the city’s subway system runs nowhere near the fragile, ancient parts of Rome, leaving buses, which we found to be confusing and unreliable, as the only other option. Therefore, be prepared to treat a trip to Rome like a Disney vacation – find some comfortable shoes and get walking! We also found ourselves constantly on guard during our stay in the city. Although it’s not a high crime place, unfortunately, bag snatching and pick pocketing are rife in the tourist areas, so keep a close eye – and a hand – on those valuable bags at all times and don’t draw attention to cameras or camcorders. We saw some people walking around with valuable camcorders casually slung over their shoulders, an open invitation to a thief if ever we saw one.

Our springtime visit to Rome was very comfortable, with temperatures in the 60s and 70s on most days, so it’s no surprise to us that many guidebooks describe this season as the best to visit the country. Despite that, most tourists choose to travel to Rome between June and August. It seems every Roman takes his/her vacation in August (something about the heat, we suspect), so some shops or restaurants could be closed down. If you can, plan to go out of the summer season, as the crowds are very manageable and the weather still good. One final thing: Don’t forget to toss a coin over your opposite shoulder into the Trevi Fountain to ensure you’ll return to Rome. If meeting a Roman is high on your agenda, then make sure it’s two coins you throw, and increase that to three for marriage. Already married when we visited there, I stuck with the one coin, although I’m still waiting for that return trip!

About the Author: Cheryl is the author of the e-book, PassPorter's Walt Disney World for British Holidaymakers, and is the co-author of PassPorter's Disney Vacation Club Guide: For Members and Members-To-Be. Cheryl and husband Mark live in England and love to travel, particularly to Disney, and they have travelled around the world, taking in a number of Disney cruises, Walt Disney World, Disneyland, Aulani in Hawai'i, Disneyland Paris, Tokyo Disney and Hong Kong Disneyland on the way. Click here to view more of Cheryl's articles!

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Updated 06-01-2011 - Article #652 

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