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09 December 2023

A Roman holiday in the city of history


By Sonia Nazareth

Rome may no longer be caput mundi (the capital of the world), but it is still an epic, bubbling-over metropolis harbouring lost empires and history.

With a past spanning over two-and-a-half thousand years and Renaissance and Baroque architectural heirlooms on every corner, this beautiful Italian city bombards visitors with much to do.

As cars and Vespas buzz around the crammed city streets, residents fill the cafes, sipping on cappuccinos and downing fast shots of espresso, all with an air of sophistication that doesn't shout poser. With their sense of style and fashion awareness you can't help but want to be a part of it, so take those dark glasses – whatever the weather.

My first stop as I walk down the medieval roads, winding in and out of grand piazzas and bustling side streets is St. Peter's Basilica – Catholicism's most sacred shrine. I hire a guide who is aptly named Michelangelo.

Our friendship blossoms as we wander through Vatican City, which is home to several intriguing museums. Here one realises the need to have at hand a mini-dictionary or gallery guide, simply to keep pace with the sea of terminology that boggles the visitor. For instance Cortile della Pigna refers to a huge, bronze, pine cone that was once part of an ancient Roman fountain. It is easy to feel you are walking through a theatrical set. To my right, nuns greet each other, leaning forward confidentially over a monument to Pope Alexander VII. Tourists reach for their smelling salts as someone swoons over the statue of Michelangelo's Pieta. The guide gesticulates wildly towards a window, indicating that it is from where the Pope blesses the faithful gathered in the piazza below.

Over two days we have scrutinised the Greek and Roman antiquities on display since the 18th century; marvelled over saints positioned in sacred clusters upon the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and fixed our eyes adoringly on the mosaics in the Room of the Animals. Even the black box of the confessional stares grandly at me like a mini-cathedral, all pointed arches and pulsing stilts.

The guide is a saint when it comes to the dispatch of his duties. Like a man on a mission, he talks me through the Pantheon – the best preserved building in ancient Rome, then Gesu – Rome's first Jesuit church, finally to the Colosseum –Rome's great amphitheatre where gladiators fought panthers and where many people today think of Russell Crowe's famous movie.

Even in the Trajan's Market, my eager guide will not allow me respite to explore this visionary complex, which in the early 2nd century AD sold silks and spices.

Each time I want to sneak away on a light-hearted ramble, say to throw a coin in the mysterious Trevi Fountain and make a wish, or to watch a busker playing accordion by the Roman Forum, or to write a postcard about the beauty of Palatine Hill where the Roman emperors built their palaces, Michelangelo hustles me on.

In this rebellious mood, I slip away from his informative clutches and find myself at a public concert of violinists playing upon the Spanish Steps. This is the city's distinctive landmark combining straight sections and terraces, upon whose stately curves a grand number of creative acts are performed. Here, finally, I have time to introspect on my adventures.

What delights me most are the spaces for dreaming the city has on offer. As you wander through the lovely leafy park of the 17th century Villa Borghese, you can't help but imagine yourself in the shoes of the powerful cardinal who once owned this villa, jogging each morning past his grand collection of art, towards the pond outside. In the evening, dreams turn to reality in Trastevere. With its cadre of bars and restaurants, you find yourself being coaxed by fellow travellers to bite into the legacy of Rome: Stuffed zucchini and courgette flowers, artichokes with garlic, mint and parsley, pizza with smoked cheese, and pasta with ricotta, pancetta and nutmeg. All in roadside cafes, under the stars, alfresco performances serving as an appetiser.

In this city, the national preoccupation with the aesthetic fuses with incredible urban scenery to make Rome a place where you feel cool just strolling through the streets, catching the sunlight on your face outside a café, or eating a long lunch. There is so much to see and do, but don't get tied down to museums – for this is a city where history is everywhere and where the streets outside become the museum.


Getting there:

- Emirates, Austrian Airways, British Airways, Lufthansa and KLM all fly to Rome from Dubai. Once at the Leonardo da Vinci airport, take the airport shuttle or a taxi to the city centre. This journey should take around 40 minutes.

Staying there:

- Hotel Splendide Royal Rome — Rome, Italy. This 19th century palace – once the headquarters of the Roman Maronite – is today a luxury hotel offering elegant bedrooms and marble bathrooms all set in beautiful extensive gardens at €780 (Dh3,632) per night with breakfast. www.splendideroyal.com

- Hotel Cisterna: If you want to be at the heart of the action and like the idea of breakfast in a charming courtyard, this is the place for you at €130 a night including breakfast. www.cisternahotel.it 

- Pensione Panda: Close to the Spanish steps and perfect for the traveller who wants to see everything on their doorstep. Walking distance from the main attractions. Prices from €68 a night. www.pensionepanda.com

Don't leave home without:

- Sunglasses

- Flat shoes and a guide book 

- A good camera