I love Italy, especially on my birthday. This was the 3rd year running, and I realized that I hadn’t seen the heart of Italy, the capitol. Roma. I wanted to understand my favorite country from a more historical perspective. I wanted to find the root of why Italy is Italy and understand the ancient historic past events that made it what it is today.
This is what I learnt.
It’s just a taster, but I think it a good start in defining what Italy means to me, and hopefully will be a good guide for you!
Rome is far larger than you’d think, but at the same time, it’s far smaller too. The historical center, full of the famous sights is actually fairly easy to get around on foot. But if you want to rest those tired legs my recommendation is to travel by rickshaw.
We found the delightful Alexander by the Coliseum, he’s the owner of an eco-rickshaw tour service that’s just getting off the ground. He gave us a grand tour of Rome as a special Birthday deal and explained every building’s history and character in overwhelming detail.
There’s nothing like being rickshawed through a busy crowd right to the edge of Trevi Fountian. Recommend!
The highlight of the day – the perfect Pantheon. I say perfect, because of all the great and grand monuments to God, Gods or man that you can find on the streets of Rome, this one is the granddaddy of them all. That dome. Wow. The inspiration for St. Pauls, St. Peters and the Capitol Building. Originally built for the ancient Roman Gods, it’s been retrofitted for Jesus and is the oldest Roman building still in operation. Perfect engineering, perfect size, perfect form, perfect perfection. The only thing that could make it more perfect is having an amazing dinner at Piazza della Rotonda while looking at it. So we did! It was self made pasta (always do this in Italy) and a bottle of perfect Vermentino from Tuscany. This was the ultimate Roman experience for me.
When in Rome…as they say…don’t visit the Vatican City on a Saturday. You will very quickly discover how many Catholics there are in the world, because they will all be queuing for entry in St. Peters! And that queue will be biblical in every sense of the word. I’d recommend getting there extra early like before breakfast. (as it’s closed on Sundays)
But if you want a good alternative with fewer queues and better views… Might I recommend the Castel Sant ‘Angelo…originally built as a mausoleum for the Roman Emperor Hadrian, it was later taken over by the Papacy as an official residence. The Church seemingly has a very good record of this in Rome! Have a drink on the top level, looking over the dome of St. Peter and marvel at the scale of Christendom. Then, take a walk through the monolithic mausoleum and marvel at the ingenuity of ancient Roman craftsmanship.
And later, visit the multitudes of beautiful smaller churches scattered as if by a salt shaker across Rome. They have the ancient Roman connection in that many were made with marble chopped off the Coliseum!
Be aware that Italy does things slightly differently, for instance closing down the Coliseum and the Roman Forum for 3 hours on a Sunday morning for a union meeting, or not having a car available that you booked or paid for… That sort of thing. You have to go with the flow. This particular flow took us all the way out of Rome in search of our perfect Italy.
Next stop. Pompeii.
Everyone knows the story. Giant volcano destroys Roman city, later rediscovered like some sort of Indiana Jones movie. There’s even an exhibition on it at the British Museum. But nothing can really prepare you for what you’ll see.
It’s like stepping into history. If every school kid visited this amazing place we’d have a world full of historians! I also learnt that 2000 years ago, life was very similar to our own. Fast food, twitter-esque graffiti, beware of the dog signs, a love of wine and even spas. The city really brought that into reality for me, and seeing the Volcano looming over you, knowing its power, is terrifying. We stayed opposite the ruins in a great little hotel called The Hotel Forum. This allowed us to visit the ruins two days in a row. Avoid the tours and just experience the site at your own pace.
Special tip: Go into Pompeii in the afternoon, ideally around 4.00 PM, that way the crowds will have left and you can explore the old city almost on your own. Plus, the photos look ten times more amazing with the early evening shadows.
Be warned it will be dusty – it was covered in volcano ash after all.
Speaking of dust, when visiting Pompeii, it’s customary to visit its destroyer Mount Vesuvius. Again, avoid the tours or bus rides. Drive up the winding road yourself if you can, especially later in the day when the day-trippers have already left. The dust gets everywhere, but this trip will put everything into perspective. The view across the bay of Naples and over to Capri is incredible. And just the thought that you are standing on an active volcano with over 140km squared of magma bubbling underneath you, is a giddy thrill.
To complete the trifecta, there’s the ‘other’ site. Herculaneum. Hit with a pyroclastic flow as opposed to being buried in ash like Pompeii, it has made Herculaneum a very different experience. For starters, much less dust! The site is also much smaller. The volcanic rock that buried the city also did an amazing job in preserving it. If Pompeii gives you the scale, Herculaneum gives you the intimacy. Also it’s much less busy. Combining these three sites has given me an appreciation and new-found interest in history – and if you know me, that’s quite impressive.
The final leg of our mini-grand tour took us down the little winding roads to the Amalfi Coast. A series of towns and villages holding onto the cliff faces above the Mediterranean for dear life. But they do it beautifully.
Sorrento is one of the larger towns and a great gateway into the experience that is the Amalfi Coast.
It is a great holiday town. Go swimming on the seafront, rent a pedallo. Eat a delicious ice cream. Have an Aperol Spritz at Hotel Bellevue Syrene.
And if you want to have a very special dinner – go to Terrazza Marziale.
The island of Capri is also a great trip, again if you can, avoid the large tour boats. There are boat companies like Positano Boats where you can go on a day trip to Capri for max. 6 people. But do take the thin little local bus up to the town for the experience. And visit the Blue Grotto, a beautiful sea cave that is lit up by the sea. It’s hard to describe, but so beautiful that the Roman Emperor Augustus apparently used it as a private swimming pool when he visited his holiday palace on Capri.
Finally we stayed in between Amalfi and Positano in the small town of Praiano, to get a taste of this real Italy I was so desperately looking for. We stayed at the Hotel Smeraldo, mostly based on the pictures of their rooms’ balconies. They were worth it. But be aware, if you want to go to the beach, you really need to earn it, as this guest house located about 460 sheer steps away. Also the beach is more of a large rock with deckchairs. But if you do the trip before 8am, you might find this real Italy I was seeking. For me it was the sight of eight donkeys marching down the 460 steps with supplies for the beach bar. It looked as if I’d stepped back in time. No tourists, fridge magnets or lemoncello. This was Italy in all its step climbing, pack carrying glory. And like any tourist I just wish I had a camera! But maybe it was good that I didn’t. I get to keep this memory just for me. My Italy.