I fell in love with Florence at the age of 10 and have travelled widely since, but somehow I always return to this most magical of cities.
Walking the Eternal City
By the time we left the hotel, it was already late afternoon. Our plane was leaving the following dawn; we had such little time for discovering The Eternal City.
The buildings basked in a golden glow, brushed with that soft illumination which suffuses all Italian cities of stone and marble. After a fortifying espresso, we strolled to the stylish Via Veneto. A lively and fashionable area of Rome when ruled by the Caesars, a century ago this ancient quarter consisted of terraced gardens and vineyards. Then the Prince of Piombino sold part of his country estate to develop a luxurious neighbourhood of piazzas and palazzos. (The design proved so successful the Prince could no longer afford to live here.)
Rome's Spanish Steps
The Via Veneto opens onto the Piazza Barbarini. Here are two of Bernini's fountains: The Triton, and The Fountain of the Bees. Bernini designed the latter around the Barbarinis' family emblem, in deference to his patron, Pope Urban VIII.
From here, narrow, winding streets lead to the top of the Spanish Steps. (On the Via Sistine is the convent Nostra Signora di Lourdes, one of the many throughout Italy to take paying guests.) At the top stands the Trinita Dei Monte, a twin-towered Gothic church built in 1495 by Charles VIII of France. As we arrived a bride and groom left to the accompaniment of peeling bells. The church contains two works by Daniele da Volterra, a pupil of Michelangelo. (Volterra was later ordered by Pope Pius IV to paint clothes over the nude figures of the Sistine Chapel).
The Spanish Steps give an unforgettable view across the roofline of Rome. Marble and bronze domes glimmered under the setting sun. Audrey Hepburn immortalised the stairs in Roman Holiday. Keats looked onto them as he lay dying in a house in the Piazza below; Byron wrote (and seduced) in a room nearby.
At the bottom of the stairs is an unusual fountain, La Barcaccia. Designed by Bernini's father, it resembles a leaking ship. The crowds of the evening promenade filled the piazza, spilling into the expensive Via Condotti. Yet despite the crowds, the nearby Via Margutta remained quiet. This street belongs to artists and connoisseurs of art. A few small shops, unchanged in appearance for hundreds of years, elegantly display a single old print or painting in their window.
The Ponte Sant' Angelo
After tossing a coin into the Trevi Fountain, our path wended towards the Tiber, for near the Ponte Cavour is one of the most significant monuments of Ancient Rome. Commissioned by the Senate in 13BC, the Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustus' Peace) it is a three-dimensional record of 4th July, 43BC, when Augustus returned triumphantly to Rome after victories in Gaul and Spain. The Emperor can be seen leading the procession with his family and friends, with the next emperor, Tiberius, beside him.
Preserved under glass, by night the altar is dramatically spot-lit. This work is so exquisite some believe it was executed by Greek artists. The Ara Pacis Augustae is more than a ghost of days long gone; it's a dramatic reminder of the power and cultural achievements of Imperial Rome.
We crossed the Tiber on the Ponte Sant' Angelo. Closed to traffic, this bridge is a quiet place to gaze over the city and river. Built by Hadrian in 134 AD, it connects the city to his future tomb, the Castel Sant' Angelo. In the 17th century, Bernini adorned the bridge with ten angels. These ethereal creatures stand in a perpetual gale, their draperies tossed by a stone tempest even when the rest of Rome is still.
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The Vatican by Moonlight
The Leonine Wall runs along back streets from the Castel Sant Angelo to the Vatican, behind shops selling rosary beads and cardinals' socks. These streets are often empty, as most tourists approach St Peter's along the grand Via della Conciliazione. Like Florence's Vasari Corridor, the Leonine Wall houses a secret passageway, along which more than one pope has beaten a hasty retreat from the Vatican.
By moonlight, St Peter's Square has a magic magnified by the stillness. Even the pigeons have gone. Bernini likened the marble colonnade stretching around the square to the embracing arms of the mother church. The Basilica was closed, watched over by Swiss Guards in their colourful uniforms and long capes. Yet in a nearby building, an open bronze door offered a glimpse of endless corridors, where officials strutted importantly past.
Rome's Isola Tiberina
We crossed back over the Tiber near the Isola Tiberina. This boat-shaped island has been associated with healing for over 2000 years, since its dedication to Aesculapius in 293BC. The island's hospital, St Giovanni Calibita Fatebenefratelli, remains a favourite amongst mums-to-be.
Walking along the dimly lit Via del Gonfalone, the sound of clinking cutlery led us to an unmarked door. Inside, a fire blazed, and metre-thick walls of medieval brick supported a roof of exposed timber beams. A charming waiter deciphered the menu for us, stopping only at veal castrata.
Perhaps it was the magic of Rome which made this one of the best meals we had in Italy: Tuscan wine, antipasto, fresh bread, minestrone, veal straccota and lemon cakes.
Rome's Best Coffee
Our route home took us past the only perfectly preserved ancient building in Rome. The Pantheon, in the Piazza della Rotonda, was designed by the Emperor Hadrian in 125AD. Hadrian made the unique design of a Roman dome on a circular base, in the form of a Greek temple, all in perfect proportion and symmetry. The dome is higher than St Peter's, and its consecration in 609AD prevented the plundering which destroyed so much of Ancient Rome following the empire's protracted fall.
Next time I will return during a thunderstorm, when the rain splatters through the roof's circular opening onto the marble floor, and lightning illuminates the tomb of Raphael.
The Piazza di Sant' Eustachio is reached via the narrow Via Palobella. This small piazza was filled with exuberant locals making a detour on the way home for Rome's best coffee. People spilled out from the tiny Sant' Eustachio Cafe into the piazza, coffee in hand. By this time of night, the coffee was served heavily laced with aniseed, giving it an almost mystical quality.
Farewell to Rome
It may border on sacrilegious to spend only one night in Rome, but a traveller adapts to what is available. We touched on the spirit of the city, and there is always a next time. There has to be, or else we would never leave.
© 2011 Anne Harrison