Rome like many of the major European capitals has a relatively small central area meaning that most of the big attractions are fairly close to each other. Walking around Rome’s ancient narrow and winding streets is the best way to get a feel for the city and experience what it has to offer, turning corners that open up into beautiful piazza’s, wandering into small entrances that reveal pretty courtyards and finding ornate churches, literally everywhere. I really enjoyed discovering the city this way and whenever I needed break, well there’s always a coffee shop, bar or a gelateria to stop at and have a rest. Here’s the next part of my Roman highlights.
The Pantheon is one of the greatest buildings in the history of European architecture and has stood in the heart of Rome for nearly 2000 years. Originally the Roman temple of “all the gods” it became a church in the Middle Ages. What you see today was designed by the Emperor Hadrian in AD118 – 125 to replace an earlier temple built by Marcus Agrippa.
The huge portico at the front was built on the foundations of Agrippa’s temple. Walking through the doors into the Pantheon is the only way to appreciate its true scale and beauty, the rotunda’s height is 142 feet with the hole at the top, the oculus, providing the only light. The walls are lined with shrines including many kings of modern Italy and the Tomb of Raphael.
No visit to Rome would be complete without seeing the city’s most famous fountain, a relative newcomer to Rome being only completed in 1762. The creation of Nicola Salvi the Trevi Fountain is made up of a figure of Neptune flanked by two Tritons. One is struggling to control an unruly “sea horse” while the other leads a more docile animal, symbolising the two contrasting moods of the sea. Before the fountain, the site was the end of the Aqua Virgo aqueduct built in 19BC and on one of the first story reliefs you can see a young girl, the legendary virgin after whom the aqueduct was named, pointing to the spring from which the water flows. Having been recently restored and cleaned the Trevi Fountain is now as beautiful as ever.
Victor Emmanuel Monument
The “wedding cake” as it’s known locally was built to honour Victor Emmanuel II of Savoy, the first king of the unified Italy. Il Vittoriano, its official, name was begun in 1885 and inaugurated in 1911 with the king being depicted in a gilt bronze equestrian statue. The oversized monument is generally regarded to be the epitome of self important, insensitive architecture that doesn’t really fit in with its surroundings. However take the glass lift at the back of the building to the top to get some spectacular views of the city.
The foundations of the buildings surrounding this beautiful square (or elongated oval if you want to be picky) are the ruined grandstands of the enormous Stadium of Domitian. The main style of the area is Baroque, with many of the finest buildings dating from the reign of Innocent X Pamphilj (1644-55).
Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi
Sitting in the middle of Piazza Navona is the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, built for Pope Innocent X Pamphilj it was unveiled in 1651. The pope’s coat of arms decorate the pyramid rock formation supporting the Roman obelisk, which once stood in the Circus of Maxentius on the Appian Way. The fountain was designed by Bernini and has four giants representing the great rivers – the Ganges, the Danube, the Nile and the River Plate.
Sant’ Agnese in Agone
Directly in front of the fountain is the church Sant’ Agnes in Agone, believed to have been founded on the site of a brothel where, in AD304, the young St Agnes was exposed naked to force her to renounce her faith. She was martyred on this site and is buried in the catacombs that bear her name along the Via Nomentana. The church that is here today was commissioned by Pope Innocent X in 1652 and was built by Borromini.
Piazza di Spagna & The Spanish Steps
Packed with people day and night this is probably Rome’s most famous square. In the 17th century Spain’s ambassador to the Holy See had his headquarters on the square and the area around it was deemed to be Spanish territory. Later in the 18th and 19th centuries the area was popular with visitors as the square stood in the heart of the city’s hotel district. The Fontana della Barcaccia that sits at the bottom of the Spanish Steps is one of Rome’s less showy Baroque fountains. Designed by Bernini or his father there are no spectacular cascades or spurts of water, mainly due to the water pressure from the aqueduct that feeds the fountain, instead a leaking boat lies half submerged in a shallow pool.
The main attraction for todays tourists are the Spanish Steps. They were built to link the Trinita dei Monti church to the Piazza di Spagna and were completed in 1726, with their straight sections, curves and terraces they create one of the city’s most dramatic and popular landmarks. When I was visiting Rome the steps were undergoing some major restoration work and were therefore closed.
Temple of Hadrian
Honouring the emperor Hadrian as a god this temple was dedicated by his son and successor, Antoninus Pius in AD145. Today all that remains are eleven marble Corinthian columns situated on the southern side of Piazza di Pietra, the columns stand 49 feet high and are built on a base of peperino, a volcanic rock. These columns would have decorated the northern flank of the temple enclosing its inner shrine called the cella. The building you see now was built in the 17th century as a papal customs house, today it houses the Roman stock exchange.
From the Piazza Venezia a broad, gently rising set of steps, the Cordonata takes you up to the Piazza del Campidoglio. At the foot of the steps is a pair of granite Egyptian lions, the top is guarded by Classical statues of the Dioscuri – Castor and Pollox. This is a lovely area away from the traffic noise and the busy streets of the city.
Piazza del Campidoglio
The beautiful Piazza del Campidoglio was designed by Michelangelo, it is flanked by the Palazzo Nuovo and the Palazzo dei Conservatori which house the Capitoline Museums. Work on the piazza was so slow that Michelangelo never lived to see it completed. In its centre stands a replica statue of Marcus Aurelius, the original being in the Palazzo dei Conservatori.
Castel Sant’ Angelo
Dominating the riverbank not far from the Vatican is the massive fortress of Castel Sant’ Angelo. The castle takes it name from a vision Pope Gregory the Great had of the Archangel Michael on this site. Its beginnings started in AD139 as Emperor Hadrian’s mausoleum and in the time that’s passed its also been part of Emperor Aurelian’s city wall, a medieval citadel, a prison and as the residence of the popes during times of political unrest. In 1277 the Vatican Corridor was built from the Vatican Palace to Castel Sant’ Angelo to provide an escape route when the pope was in danger.
Rome is one of the most fascinating cities I’ve been to, filled with history, beautiful architecture and so much more. I really can’t wait to return here to start discovering the many many places I didn’t get to experience.
Ciao, ci vediamo presto Roma!
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