Steve planted the seed of an idea five months ago when he casually asked whether I fancied watching England play Italy at rugby in the 2012 Six Nations Cup - in February, in Rome! Never having visited the Eternal City before, it was too good an opportunity to miss. But why go to Italy and stay in a hotel just for a few days I thought, when we could rent a small apartment and stay a whole week, including Valentine's Day?
So we found a small flat to rent in Trastevere on the west bank of the River Tiber, booked our flights and bought tickets for the rugby match on an Italian website way back in October. Then we sat tight, hoping for good news at Steve's hospital assessment in December which would allow us to realise our plans, as we were unable to get travel insurance for Steve so far in advance of the date of travel. Fortunately for us, the gamble paid off! So...if you have been curious about what we've been up to for the last eight days or so, we've been in Rome, doing as the Romans do!
We watched the film Roman Holiday on the flight to Italy last Wednesday to get us in the holiday mood. On arrival, we were picked up at the airport, whisked into central Rome and taken to our accommodation, a top floor flat in an old house on a narrow cobbled street, just around the corner from the church of Santa Cecelia, patron saint of music. And it was the bells of Santa Cecelia which woke us up early the next morning for our first full day in Rome - bright sun, blue skies but extremely cold!
We started with some of the classic sights - the Roman Forum and the Colosseum - then went on the the Capitoline Hill where we found the famous statue of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a she-wolf, followed by a ride in the panoramic lift to the roof terrace of the Vittoriano building, with its wonderful views over the Roman skyline.
|Rome skyline from the Vittoriano|
Our first day's sight seeing ended at the Pantheon with its spectacular dome, where an ominous sign on the door advised visitors that the building would be closed on Friday and Saturday because bad weather was expected....
Rome had already experienced heavy snow falls the weekend before our arrival which had more or less closed the city down. When we arrived, it was still slippery under foot where the snow had not been cleared, so it seems that the Mayor didn't want to take any chances second time round.
It was bitterly cold that evening when we met up with Giuseppe, a fellow Fotoblur photographer who lives in Rome, who had contacted me when he heard we would be visiting his home city. Giuseppe took us to one of his favourite bars in Trastevere and insisted on buying Prosecco to welcome us to Rome. How generous! We got on so well, that we arranged to meet him again a few days later, depending on the weather......
To our relief, we awoke on Friday morning to sunshine and blue skies with no sign of any snow. Our travels that day took us to the northern edge of Rome where we planned to collect our tickets for Saturday's rugby match at the Stadio Olympico box office. But first, we visited MAXXI, a wonderful gallery of contemporary art, designed by UK architect Zaha Hadid, which opened in late 2009. An exciting place to wander around and have lunch.
So excited were we, that it took a while before we realized that the blue sky and sun outside had been replaced by clouds and rain. When we did notice the change in the weather, we put off collecting the rugby tickets for as long as possible in the hope that it would improve. It didn't. It got worse. We gritted our teeth and headed off to the stadium in driving sleet, which had turned into a full blown snow storm by the time we emerged from the ticket office.
We took shelter at the bus stop, blissfully unaware that the bus route we had used on our way there had been suspended as part of the transport system's "Snow Plan". Had it not been for a kind local sheltering at the same stop, we might have waited for hours for a non-existent bus. Luckily for us, our good Samaritan was able to tell us how to get back to Trastevere via bus routes that were still running, and we made it back to base safely. Gluttons for punishment, we braved the snow again that night to eat out at Giuseppe's favourite bar, wondering whether the rugby match would go ahead the following day given the horrible weather conditions.
Saturday dawned cold but bright, so we headed off north again on the bus, this time getting off at the Ponte della Musica where Roman families were out in force having fun in the sunshine, playing in the piles of snow which had been cleared from the bridge's main walkway.
|Playing in the snow - Ponte della Musica|
|Snow clearing at The Auditorium|
However, as we finished eating the snow started falling again so we spent some more time exploring the building rather than brave the blizzard outside. The chances of the rugby match going ahead in these white out conditions seemed remote. But unable to check the latest news online, the only way to find out whether or not the match had been cancelled was to make a quick phone call back to the UK to ask daughter Katie to investigate. As she could find nothing to suggest the match wasn't gong ahead, we set off towards the stadium, stopping at MAXXI on the way for a warming cup of coffee, along with other Italian and English rugby fans with the same idea.
|Snow at MAXXI, en route to Stadio Olympico|
|Steve at the Stadio|
|The sign says "Clare Morris Will you marry me? From Mike"|
A very public proposal
Sunday morning dawned bright, but once again bitterly cold. We met up with Giuseppe and his wife Maria Adele at the Pantheon and warmed up with coffee and pastries at their favourite cafe before going walkabout from Piazza to Piazza, via atmospheric streets, learning about the city's history from Maria Adele (born and bred in Rome) as we went along.
|Giuseppe and Marie Adele|
|The Trevi fountain where you throw in and coin and wish to return to Rome|
Our Sunday ended with a trip back to Trastevere to visit the African drum and dance group where Giuseppe plays most weeks. Great sounds!
We finished the evening with a farewell drink together before heading off to our respective homes after a wonderful day. It seems strange now to think that until a few days ago, Giuseppe was known to us in name only, on a photography website. In these circumstances, to experience such generosity and kindness is indeed a privilege and one which we appreciated greatly. Thank you so much Giuseppe and Maria Adele!
On Monday we visited the Vatican - a city within a city, with its own police, post office, army and fire brigade (the latter on snow clearing duty in Piazza San Pietro). The queue to get into St Peters was half way round the square by the time we arrived, so instead of waiting in the cold we spent a few hours people watching and trying our hands at street photography before an early lunch.
Our timed tickets to the Vatican Museums were for 1.30 pm and we spent the next few hours passing about two and a half thousand years of art - painting, sculpture, archaeology, tapestries, gifts to the Pope (including a small flag which had travelled to the moon and some fragments of moon rock, a gift from Richard Nixon to the people of the Vatican City) before entering the Sistine Chapel to marvel at Michelangelo's painted ceiling and the other frescos.
We also managed to photograph the splendid 1930s double helix staircase - originally the entrance to the museum complex, now the exit - a classic view which we were keen to capture ourselves.
By the time we stumbled out of the museums, the queues to visit St Peters had all but disappeared so, after an extended security check (if you wear a belt with a big metal buckle that sets off the alarm, make sure it's one you can easily remove....) we entered the basilica and were overwhelmed by the huge scale of the place. Not surprising really, its the largest church in the world! We were too late to take the lift to the dome and the viewing terrace, but it was still worth the visit, nevertheless.
|St Peter's Basilica, Vatican City|
Wrapped up well, we headed off to the EUR district via the tram to Trastevere Station, a dry run for our return journey to the airport the following day. The EUR area was planned as a home for a World Fair in the mid 1930s, but work came to a halt with the onset of World War II. However, some interesting buildings survived, in particular the Palazzio dei Congressi and the Palazzio della Civilta Italiano (also known as the Square Colosseum) both of which are interesting photographically.
|The Square Colosseum|
We headed back into the centre of Rome for our Valentine lunch (Pizza Romana - what else?) then carried on to the Palazzio Barberini. As it was Valentine's Day, the Museum let two people in for the price of one - what a lovely gesture! We enjoyed walking through the almost deserted galleries viewing the art and climbing the two beautiful staircases at either end of the main frontage, a square one designed by Bernini and a circular stair design by Borromini.
Later that day, we celebrated our last evening "at home" with a bottle of Prosecco, before packing ready for the return trip yesterday.
If you ever travel to Rome via Fiumicino (Leonardo da Vinci) airport allow plenty of time for security and passport checks - they seem to take forever, even in February which is hardly a busy time of the year. The furthest boarding gate (used by budget airlines) is a good 15 minutes fast paced walk beyond passport control. We were both panting as we arrived at Gate H9, with just five minutes to spare before it closed, even though we thought we had allowed plenty of time, having checked in online with hand luggage only, and with our boarding passes printed already. Several others were not so fortunate, arriving after the gate closed and their luggage was removed from the hold before we departed. We heaved a sigh of relief that it wasn't us, as we settled down to watch "Three Coins in the Fountain" on the flight home. The views of the city in the film which had been so new to us on the way out, were now familiar sights, bringing back happy memories of our week in Rome. We hope to return, but next time without the snow!