It turns out that there aren’t such things as last minute deals any more. Not in the way I remember, anyway. A few years back we walked into a Travel Agent a couple of weeks before we were due to go on holiday, told them our (teeny) budget and asked “where can we go”. We ended up in Luxor, in the Crocodile Island Hotel, and had a great week exploring the local area and learning an awful lot about ancient Egypt. But this time, despite having the whole internet and its plethora of holiday sites to provide us with the best deal, for the week we’d chosen the prices just didn’t change. Well they did – they went up the week before, then back down to the original price a few days before we wanted to travel. It was as expensive booking the Saturday before we flew on the Tuesday as it was a month earlier. Waiting simply meant we had less choice on flight and hotel.
Having said that we think we got a pretty good deal. After spending hours trawling websites and reading reviews, we ended up booking the flight and hotel as a package with British Airways. We could have booked the two things separately with a budget airline and discount hotel booking site, but when we added in the fees for luggage and other extra charges, there was only a handful of pounds in it so we naturally went for the nicer option. We decided that extra few pounds was worth it to get something we knew was going to be decent – you still get fed and watered on a short haul flight with BA, and the food is not bad (it’s not going to win awards but it was perfectly edible), and you definitely feel less like herded cattle at the boarding gate. The flight to Rome’s Fiumicino Airport is a little over three hours, which makes it ideal for a short city break.
In order to claim back the little bit extra we’d spent on the holiday we decided to get a bus from the airport to the centre of Rome instead of a taxi. The SITBusShuttle costs just €6 each, each way, which is actually a bargain – way cheaper than a taxi and much more convenient than The Leonardo Express train from the airport to Rome’s main station. We’d read that it is popular and some people have had to wait for the next bus, but we didn’t have a problem getting a seat (I guess it depends on the time you are wanting to travel). It was very easy to find at the airport – at bus stop 1 at Terminal 3; there was a young lady stood by the bus to buy your tickets from so we didn’t need to find a ticket machine. The service took about 45 minutes to get us to Via Cresenzio just along from Plaza Cavour, first along the motorway and then through the city streets. From the Plaza we had about a ten minute walk to our hotel, which was easily doable with our wheelie suitcase.
We nearly got a taxi back to the airport but decided to just get the bus again, we couldn’t argue with the price and we knew it would get us there without any problems. It picks up from the same place it drops off, and the timetable is online so we could easily look up to see which bus to catch. When we arrived the queue was already long but the lady taking money for tickets was confident we’d all get on – we did, but there were two buses anyway so all was well and no one got left behind. A very useful service if ever you visit Rome, we shall use it again next time.
As it happened choosing to book a package was an incredibly good move and one that could well have saved the holiday. On arrival at our hotel – Hotel Metropolis in the Vatican area of the city – we were informed that no reservation had been made. Oh. Ummmm. After the check in assistant had phoned her booking department a couple of times we phoned BA and thankfully they couldn’t have been more helpful. They made phone calls to the hotel and their booking department, then back to us. It turned out that the hotel had confirmed the booking with BA (hence the booking confirmation emails), but a ‘glitch’ in their system meant the room didn’t actually get reserved – and since then it had been rebooked by someone else so the hotel was now full. We were put into another hotel for the first night, arranged by Hotel Metropolis because of the mistake. What would have been a difficult and stressful afternoon in Rome trying to find a replacement hotel for our holiday was made much easier thanks to the fact we made the choice to book both flight and hotel together with BA. Phew.
We transfered over to Hotel Giulio Cesare, just a few streets away, where they were expecting us and check-in was quick and simple. Quite an elegant and traditional looking hotel, our room was quite spacious with everything we needed for our one night stay. As always seems to be the case now in hotel rooms there was very little lighting which makes getting ready a bit more difficult than I’d like, but I guess it’s more relaxing that way. Breakfast was simple but nice, a self service selection of hot and cold food that was decent enough, and English Breakfast Tea available (very important!).
Hotel Metropolis was more modern and business-like than the Giulio Cesare, but equally as nice. The room was smaller but plenty big enough (we have stayed in much smaller in London!), and everything seemed quite new – the furniture and decoration was up to date and looking fresh. The en suite (just a shower, no bath) was modern and clean with a fantastic shower, although I’m not sure I like the non-locking glass door – I’m sure it’s very ‘designer’, but there was little privacy, it’s a good job LincsGeek and I know each other well. Breakfast was in the basement, a crypt-like affair, and to be honest the quality seemed to depend on the servers working when we got there. The food itself was a bit uninspiring (not as nice as the Giulio Cesare), perfectly good to eat but not a lot of choice, and while on our first morning we were offered hot drinks straight away, the second day we couldn’t find anyone serving so we stuck to juice and found a coffee shop on our way into the city centre instead. Overall we were happy with Hotel Metropolis, the quality matched the price and it was perfectly suited to what we were after – nice, clean, quiet, easy to find, friendly.
Both hotels were about 30 minutes walk from the main part of Rome, about 45 minutes from the Colosseum and and just 10 minutes from Vatican City. If we’d have booked earlier we’d have stayed nearer Piazza Navona or somewhere in that vicinity, but neither of us mind walking and we didn’t need to make use of Rome’s public transport at all.
Don’t forget that when you stay in Rome you are required to pay a tourism tax when you check-out. The tax is per person per night and the cost depends on the rating of the hotel you are staying in. For our four star hotel it was €6 per person per night, adding €48 to the cost of our stay.
First Impressions of Rome
Rome is an amazing city, there is no doubt about that. Before we went we asked friends, family and twitter what we should look out for and travelled to the city armed with lists of attractions and restaurants and other things that we should be visiting.
What got me was how nonchalant they are about their historical artefacts. There are columns and statues are everywhere. You can touch them, sit on them, stand on them, kick them if you really want to. They have so many dotted about the city – around every corner – that they are just there to be viewed and abused as the public see fit. I kind of like this in some ways as it means you don’t actually have to pay to go inside any of the major attractions to see Rome’s history, but at the same time it means that these awesome structures are crumbling away and won’t be there forever. You can’t even get that close to the fake stuff in Las Vegas – the lack of fencing around things was a surprise. There was graffiti everywhere, too, including on those quite beautiful ancient columns and statues. Especially on apartment blocks and shops and public buildings. No point putting posters up on hoardings – they’ll be covered in brightly coloured spray paint and various tags in no time at all. What a shame. It really does make Rome look terrible. Quite rough. Why is this allowed?!
And that gets very neatly into the issue of parking. Wow. Does a car “just about” fit in? Then it’s a parking space. No matter if it’s a footpath, junction, pedestrian crossing, blocking a drive or entrance, or even if a car is already in it. Small cars and scooters are a must, and they just get abandoned anywhere and indeed everywhere. This makes walking down a street quite difficult – I’m very pleased we didn’t have a buggy or wheelchair as that would have been impossible; I wouldn’t recommend Rome with small children!
One other thing that got on my nerves were the Roman soldiers stood outside important historical buildings just waiting to get in your photo. Did you see that documentary on it? It’s a real problem. Oh and the ticket touts outside the Vatican who will happily accost you at pedestrian crossings or walk alongside you trying to push guide books and tour tickets into your hands. They’re even in the queue! And then there are the selfie-stick sellers. They were everywhere!! Good price – yes I’m sure but I really don’t want to buy one from you thanks very much. They were doing good business, every other couple or young traveller had given in and bought one. LincsGeek doesn’t do selfies – he took his first ever one on this trip (without the use of a stick!) and said it made him feel dirty. I’m afraid that I’m more guilty of taking them and I admit I was a teeny little tempted by a stick, thinking one would be very useful when I’m out hillwalking alone, but never from a pushy street seller.
Thankfully, if you look past the layers of graffiti, terrible parking and street sellers, Rome is an absolutely beautiful place to explore. We walked miles and miles around the city in awe. There is something of historical significance around every corner, several churches on each street, and we learnt something, too!
Eating well in Rome is easy. There is so much choice, even more than in London. Having said that, two of the three times we used recommendations from Tripadvisor we discovered the restaurant was closed – it seems there is lots of turnover in the restaurant business in Rome. Our best meal of the trip in my opinion was in a little restaurant called Da Vito e Dina on Via Degli Scipioni in the Vatican area of the city where we were treated to great service, and spent very little on our pizza and pasta. We dined with locals, which is always a good sign I find, and left very happy with out choice. It was much nicer than the Rosati on Piazza del Popolo, which was a more upmarket affair with lots of people-watching possibilities, but was expensive for what we had. Restaurants on Plazas or Piazzas are not generally as good value as those just a few streets away, and so we stuck to that advice for the rest of the trip.
Of course a trip to Italy would not be complete without lots and lots of Gelato. Apparently it’s more healthy than our version of ice cream back home, although probably not in the quantity we ate! There are places to buy gelato everywhere, and you’ll soon see which ones are good and which are just average. Everything is on display which helps – and a queue is a good sign too.
The Tourist Stuff
We spent most of our few days in Rome walking. Lots and lots of walking. It really is the only way to see the city. There is public transport but you miss so much by getting on a bus or going underground. LincsGeek’s phone said we walked 54 miles in four days which isn’t bad going at all – it meant we didn’t have to worry about the amount of bread, pasta and gelato we ate! We did all the usual touristy things, you have to the first time you visit a place really, especially if you only have a very short space of time to explore somewhere. After that you can start poking around for the lesser known spots and really get to know a place. This means that you should visit everywhere twice. Well, most places, there are some places I’ve visited I’d rather avoid next time!
Everywhere is as grand as you might imagine. There are columns and statues and arches and churches on every corner. Okay there is a church every other building, each grander than the last and each supposedly offering a unique style to the worshiper. All had their doors wide open to visitors – with a large collection box in a suitably obvious location of course. We went in a few and were surprised at how ornate the décor was. Marble and gold leaf, highly polished stone, shrines and candles, tapestries and incredibly detailed paintings. Not much like my church back home, where we have magnolia walls and a plain blue carpet. I wondered where all the money came from and why it had been spent on sparkle and detail rather than on the mission. But I am not to judge, I cannot deny the awe and wonder such places evoke, and the fact they look like they do must keep the visitors coming and the collection plates full.
One of the churches that draws the biggest crowds is the Pantheon, an impressive very Roman looking building with beautiful columns holding up the roof and Latin inscriptions engraved into the stone. The inside is way more impressive than the out – set in an circle there are statues and paintings all around. Actually, if you go outside and around the back of the building, it is incredibly non-descript – just brick and stone, you’d have no idea from there what it was like on the inside. Don’t ignore it though, go in, sit for a moment, think, pray, meditate in all that hustle and bustle.
Rome’s biggest tourist attraction is arguably the Colosseum and surrounding Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. You can explore all three attractions on the same ticket (buy in advance online rather than queueing on the day – the tickets last two consecutive days), and at €12 it offers a good value day out (it would be at least double that in the UK). The Colosseum itself is quite magnificent – it is absolutely massive and you get a real sense of the history of Rome from inside the walls. Wow the Romans were a blood-thirsty bunch! If you want to go into the basement of the Colosseum you have to be on a tour, but you can see lots of it from the walkway around the stadium. Next time we go I’d be very tempted with a tour, but this time it was just fine to be wandering around using our guide book to explain what we were looking at. The Colosseum is self-contained and you need to use a different entrance to get into the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. Once in there you have so much space to explore – lots of buildings, ruins, columns, burial chambers, statues and other things to look at. It’s worth getting all the way to the top of Palatine Hill for the view of the Circus Maximus, the ancient Roman chariot racing stadium below.
The Vatican is another must-see place. Again, make sure you buy your tickets in advance – the Vatican’s own website is the best place to make sure you are paying the going rate and nothing extra. We went for the basic admission tickets without any tour or additional access, it gave us entry into the Vatican Museums including the Sistine Chapel, and meant we didn’t need to queue around the block to get in. You can easily spend hours inside the museums, looking at all the maps, statues, paintings, artefacts and other artwork, there is so much to see. I was slightly surprised by the display of an actual Mummy in the Egyptian Museum, yes, a real dead ancient Egyptian outside his sarcophagus inside a glass cabinet, complete with tourists taking photographs (I couldn’t do that). Less surprising was the well painted ceilings and examples of sculpture such as Laocoon and His Sons and Tigris. And then of course there is the Sistine Chapel – larger than I had imagined and brighter, too, with the famous frescos by Michelangelo donning the walls and ceiling. No photography or talking is allowed inside (just the inevitable sound of officials saying “shhhhhhhh” constantly), and the 100s of tourists and lack of chairs makes taking a moment to pray in this most holy of places quite difficult. It might be the home of the Papal Conclave when required but every other day it is a tourist attraction like no other I have ever seen.
Outside the Vatican Museums, and free to enter, is St Peter’s Basilica, one of the largest churches in the world. Catholic tradition says that this is the burial site of St Peter, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, and in its crypt you can see the apparent site of the grave where there is a small shrine to the Saint. Inside the church is absolutely vast and decorated with every kind of precious material you can imagine. We spent a little time wandering around the nave and various chapels, wandering through the crypt, and sitting in St Peter’s Plaza enjoying the late afternoon sunshine. It really is well worth a visit, quite spectacular.
Still associated with the Vatican, and if you want some excellent views of Rome from high up, head to Castel Sant’Angelo, which is the tomb of the Roman emperor Hadrian. We went there primarily for the views but actually had a really interesting morning learning about some of Rome’s history. Once again we were surprised how nonchalant they are about their ancient artefacts in Rome – the spiral ramp had some excellent examples of original ancient Roman floor mosaics, which you were quite at liberty to walk across. The view from the top was spectacular, the cafe was lovely, and the sword-yielding statue of Archangel Michel at the top is stunning.
Rome is covered in plazas, steps and fountains. The Spanish Steps and Trevi fountain are two not-to-be-missed sites (although the Trevi fountain was completely switched off and covered in scaffolding when we went – most disappointing), as are Piazza Navona and Piazza del Pololo. We took a walking tour (thanks to our guide book) that ended up at Palazza Barberini, but Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini with its creepy crypt full of the skeletal remains of 3,700 bodies was (sadly!) closed for lunch. The Altare della Patria (National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II) was also worth a look, it is the biggest memorial I have ever seen and if you pay a few Euro you can go up the lift and see the whole of Rome from the top.
Four nights was both enough time in Rome and not enough. It is a large city which is very busy and so a few days is plenty of time in one go. But at the same time we only just scratched the surface of what Rome has to offer the traveller, and so will need to go back again sometime. What are your top tips for our second visit?