When in Rome? Heat, crowds and some incredible experiences

Tourists inside the Colosseum, which receives six million visitors a year.

Tourists inside the Colosseum, which receives six million visitors a year. Photo: Getty

Our first morning in Rome dawns full of promise. Mostly the promise of scorching heat, as the Eternal City endures another summer heatwave.

By 8am, we’ve left our apartment in the Jewish quarter and are wending our way past ancient ruins towards the Colosseum.

At the Giardinetto del Monte Oppio, a park just north of the Colosseum, we stop to take in an almost unobstructed view of it, and contemplate our keenly anticipated morning ahead.

There’s just time to find a cafe and breakfast like a local – cappuccino and brioche – before we join our tour group.

By 10am, we’re assembled with a gaggle of Americans, Canadians, Europeans and other Australians as we meet Humi (“Humi with the yellow glove” is how she is known, she tells us, holding aloft a weathered woollen glove on the end of an extendable pointer. This is how “Team Humi” will stick together in the swirling crowds).

Then we’re off, through airport-style security and a passport inspection to reunite inside the walls of the Colosseum.

It’s an incredible space, beaten but far from humbled by nearly 2000 years of history. Humi points out holes in the mighty columns – gouged over centuries by Romans seeking the iron pins that held them together.

And everywhere, thousands upon thousands of Roman bricks, as straight and strong as the day they were laid by long-gone hands.

Our group heads underground, to the back stage. We spend about an hour here, walking where gladiators, actors and musicians once trod.

colosseum rome

Underground at the Colosseum. Photo: Getty

Humi guides us onward and upwards. We stand on the recreated stage and look up to crumbling stands that once held up to 80,000 screaming Romans. And then we’re in the stands, looking back down.

The temperature now in the mid-30s, our tour moves to the adjacent Roman Forum, the excavated heart of the ancient empire.

We see where Julius Caesar was slain, and the temple built to honour him, where the devoted still flock. We tread an original Roman road and gaze in awe at the remarkable ruins. Really, I’d quite like a bit of shade.

By 12.30pm, my stomach says it’s time for lunch. We end up at a small and (thankfully) pleasantly cool restaurant on nearby Via di San Giovanni in Laterano.

Their English is limited (and our Italian much more so), but we manage to order a delicious lunch of ravioli and spaghetti amatriciana. Plus the ubiquitous Campari spritz and a local beer.

After that, our feet call for a taxi to Campo de Fiori, where we have our first real disappointment. It’s billed as an ancient produce market. Really it’s a rather jaded tourist lure – with stallholders slumped like wound-down toys who leap into life at the scent of a sale.

“Truffle oil, sir? Very good … or you like chilli oil?”

It’s a quick hustle through rainbow pastas and pre-packed risotto mix as we opt instead for a siesta.

Hours later, with the temperature easing from its peak of 37 degrees, we venture out again. This time for the banks of the Tiber River, which are lined with marquees offering a bewildering array of bars, food and crafts.

This summer market offers a bustling spot to while away an early evening at the river’s edge. We grab drinks from one and ponder the dizzying array of food from others.

After that, it’s home to bed. Because tomorrow is another big day.

St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. Photo: Getty

Day two

We begin our second scorching day with a stroll along the Tiber to the Vatican. As we get closer, traffic and crowds build and build.

Outside the Vatican, the queues are already lengthy by 9.30am. Inside, it’s best described as industrial – milling crowds lined up at numerous security points before entering the massive modern foyer.

Without any real awareness of being inside one of the world’s most historic churches, we head up a long, packed escalator.

At the top, we eventually spot a sign pointing to the Sistine Chapel. Even reaching that singular point takes at least half an hour along packed corridors, up stairs, around corners, through mini chapels, down more stairs.

All are stuffed with priceless works of art, historic artefacts, ancient documents. It’s an incredible building but, packed to the gills with tourists of all descriptions, it’s hard to fully absorb its majesty.

At the Sistine Chapel, seated guards hiss repeatedly: “Move in, move to the centre, no photos.”

We take in Michelangelo’s masterpiece and flee. Along more corridors, stairs and past numerous souvenir shops. It’s even difficult to find the exit – and no opportunity to sell a book, bust or biblical memorabilia is passed up on the way.

Eventually, we emerge, blinking, into the hot morning sun and in desperate need of a pre-lunch antidote.

Castel Sant’Angelo. Photo: Getty

Castel Sant’Angelo proves just that. Commissioned by Roman emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for his family, it has also been a castle and a fortress in the centuries since.

It is comparatively light on crowds – and rules. Here we can wander as we please, exploring rooms and discovering stories. It’s a delight – with views.

Lunch is pizza near the Pantheon. This amazing building also swarms with tourists – and tickets are now required. On trying to buy some for the next day, we found there was literally only one place left. Next time.

Then it’s a siesta repeat, ahead of dinner at a local restaurant.

By happy chance, we stumble upon Voglia di Pizza. Its USP [unique selling point] is that it’s gluten-free. That not being a requirement for us, we feast on an antipasto platter followed by spaghetti and seasonable vegetables and (when in Rome …) a classic carbonara.

Meanwhile, all around, local traders bring down the shutters on another day. It’s a fitting way to cap a visit to this most intriguing of cities.

Topics: Italy, Rome
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