Everything happened in Rome, from the birth of
history’s most influential empire to the chic hedonism of “La Dolce
Vita.” And winter is the best time to visit.
TEXT MICHAEL HAMMERSCHLAG feedback
Tired of the frigid gloom of the third Rome’s mud season? Get away —
far away — to the first Rome. For years I toured Roman ruins from
England to Hungary to Greece: now I was finally going to see the
Eternal City, at least once before I die. And ruins it has, everywhere,
all the time. From the free extravaganza of buildings of the Forum, to
the Aqueduct and massive Colosseum (where up to a million people met
their death over 330 years), to the most perfectly preserved large
ancient building, the Pantheon … Rome is magnificent.
peoples have had empires, including the Russians, Greeks, Mongols and
English, but the Romans take the cake for longevity: 500-700 years of
domination over most of Europe, as well as parts of North Africa and
the Middle East. Three thousand years of Roman history are splayed out
over a large but manageable city. It’s a mad stew, with Christian
churches cannibalizing and incorporating ancient buildings, and a
dizzying array of overlapping layers of antiquity.
gems are the preserved and reconstructed buildings of the Colosseum,
Roman Forum, and Palatine — the contiguous hill that houses the immense
palace of the Emperors. Head straight for Via dei Fori Imperiali, where
the treasures of antiquity line both sides of the street: the huge
intact Trajan’s Market and Column on the east with the columns of the
Forums of emperors Caesar, Augustus and Nerva. The other side of the
street features the massive Arch of Septimius Severus and the three
giant barrel-vault chambers of the football-field-sized Basilica of
Constantine built in 318 A.D.
The Romans’ great strength was
civil architecture. While the Greeks are designated the founders of
Western civilization (and the Romans adopted most of their ideas), the
Romans built the huge underground concrete sewer, the Cloaca Maxima, in
600 B.C., as well as hundreds of miles of marble aqueducts. They moved
millions of tons of rock to build upper stories without steam,
electricity, or hydraulic power, and developed a unique Roman style
fashioned from arch, vault, and dome. At the same time, the Romans
fought a 120-year intercontinental war with Carthage while the rest of
the world was figuring out how to make pots.
At the bottom of
Imperial Forum Way stands the Colosseum, a sight so familiar you won’t
believe you’ve never seen it in the flesh. It is the culmination of all
the Roman style and science in a perfect building, able to move 60,000
people in and out smoothly, and provide gaudy and grotesque
entertainment. Dozens of animals would appear as if by magic from giant
elevators in the three-storey halls below the wooden floor. A dozen
sets of gladiators would fight at once in the bloody contests that were
the more diverting half of Juvenal’s formula for pleasing the masses —
“bread and circuses.” The Colosseum retains its imperial grandeur,
despite being stripped of marble by centuries of popes in order to
build St. Peter’s, Rome’s other great architectural icon. This seat of
the Catholic church competes with Moscow’s Lenin waxworks in the
macabre stakes. The desiccated corpse of Pope John 23 is on display in
a glass coffin, and hundreds of thousands of corpses are stuffed in
niches in the extensive Catacombs, which are open for tours.
marginally less grandiose is the Pantheon, originally built as a temple
to all the gods of Rome, but used as a Christian church since the
seventh century. From the outside the building certainly looks like
it’s seen a millennium or two, but the interior is pure Renaissance —
if you don’t count the round hole in the top of the dome, which is the
only source of light in the building. The rain water runs into channels
at the edge of church floor, or is swept away from the hole by air
currents coming off the roof. The ancient Romans were a clever bunch,
Today’s Romans are open and friendly, and about half
of them speak some English, many very well. I speak butchered pigeon
Russian, Spanish, school French, but little Italian — still, this was
no great problem. Winter in Rome can be wet, and because it is usually
a hot city, there is almost no heating anywhere. You go from cold
outside, to cold church to cool museum, so bring a sweater or hooded
sweatshirt. Otherwise, January is a great time to travel — no crowds,
no waiting, no searing heat, no thieves, no rules. Rome is eminently
walkable, with hundreds of piazzas (practically every intersection is a
piazza), fountains and columns. Everywhere you go you encounter fabled
sites from history, books, language, school, and movies. Strolling
towards a bus stop from the Pantheon, I blundered across the Trevi
Fountain, where Nordic beauty Anna Ekberg invited Marcello Mastroianni
to bathe with her in “La Dolce Vita.” But after a few days in Rome, you
stop noticing these surprise meetings: you get the feeling that not
only all roads lead to Rome, but that everything big in history
happened right here.
• Getting there — Tickets are around $550 from Alitalia and $450 from Aeroflot.
Visas — Italy is one place that likes Americans — no visas needed for
three months. The same goes for Australians and Canadians. Russians
need a tourist visa, which usually lasts for three weeks and is
relatively easy to get.
• Transportation — A one-day pass for
metro, bus and train is four euros, or 16 euros for one week. Dollar
quoted the best car hire rates: 29 euros a day at Termini Station.
Bicycle and scooter rentals start at ten euros a day at Cyclo.
Accommodation — Cristina House has five locations around Termini train
station with hostel rooms for 11 euros and separate rooms for 55-70
euros with TV and free breakfast. If you don’t like surprises, head to
the Best Western, which has rooms for 99 euros single and 169 double.
For Art Deco glamour, the Forum Hotel is gorgeous, and overlooks
Trajan’s Market and the Forum. Single rooms are 130 euros, double rooms
are 190 euros.
• Money — Change your rubles to euros before you
go — nobody likes them here. The only place that changes them take a
whopping 32 percent. Or use ATMs. Rome is expensive, especially for
food in supermarkets. At restaurants, look for the multi-course package
for 10-15 euros, separately one can easily spend 50 euros. Pizza joints
are everywhere, sometimes five a block, but meat is rare (at least