roman holiday

Everything happened in Rome, from the birth of history’s most influential empire to the chic hedonism of “La Dolce Vita.” And winter is the best time to visit.


Tired of the frigid gloom of the third Rome’s mud season? Get away — far away — to the first Rome. For years I toured Roman ruins from England to Hungary to Greece: now I was finally going to see the Eternal City, at least once before I die. And ruins it has, everywhere, all the time. From the free extravaganza of buildings of the Forum, to the Aqueduct and massive Colosseum (where up to a million people met their death over 330 years), to the most perfectly preserved large ancient building, the Pantheon … Rome is magnificent.

Many peoples have had empires, including the Russians, Greeks, Mongols and English, but the Romans take the cake for longevity: 500-700 years of domination over most of Europe, as well as parts of North Africa and the Middle East. Three thousand years of Roman history are splayed out over a large but manageable city. It’s a mad stew, with Christian churches cannibalizing and incorporating ancient buildings, and a dizzying array of overlapping layers of antiquity.

The real gems are the preserved and reconstructed buildings of the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine — the contiguous hill that houses the immense palace of the Emperors. Head straight for Via dei Fori Imperiali, where the treasures of antiquity line both sides of the street: the huge intact Trajan’s Market and Column on the east with the columns of the Forums of emperors Caesar, Augustus and Nerva. The other side of the street features the massive Arch of Septimius Severus and the three giant barrel-vault chambers of the football-field-sized Basilica of Constantine built in 318 A.D.

The Romans’ great strength was civil architecture. While the Greeks are designated the founders of Western civilization (and the Romans adopted most of their ideas), the Romans built the huge underground concrete sewer, the Cloaca Maxima, in 600 B.C., as well as hundreds of miles of marble aqueducts. They moved millions of tons of rock to build upper stories without steam, electricity, or hydraulic power, and developed a unique Roman style fashioned from arch, vault, and dome. At the same time, the Romans fought a 120-year intercontinental war with Carthage while the rest of the world was figuring out how to make pots.

At the bottom of Imperial Forum Way stands the Colosseum, a sight so familiar you won’t believe you’ve never seen it in the flesh. It is the culmination of all the Roman style and science in a perfect building, able to move 60,000 people in and out smoothly, and provide gaudy and grotesque entertainment. Dozens of animals would appear as if by magic from giant elevators in the three-storey halls below the wooden floor. A dozen sets of gladiators would fight at once in the bloody contests that were the more diverting half of Juvenal’s formula for pleasing the masses — “bread and circuses.” The Colosseum retains its imperial grandeur, despite being stripped of marble by centuries of popes in order to build St. Peter’s, Rome’s other great architectural icon. This seat of the Catholic church competes with Moscow’s Lenin waxworks in the macabre stakes. The desiccated corpse of Pope John 23 is on display in a glass coffin, and hundreds of thousands of corpses are stuffed in niches in the extensive Catacombs, which are open for tours.

Only marginally less grandiose is the Pantheon, originally built as a temple to all the gods of Rome, but used as a Christian church since the seventh century. From the outside the building certainly looks like it’s seen a millennium or two, but the interior is pure Renaissance — if you don’t count the round hole in the top of the dome, which is the only source of light in the building. The rain water runs into channels at the edge of church floor, or is swept away from the hole by air currents coming off the roof. The ancient Romans were a clever bunch, after all.

Today’s Romans are open and friendly, and about half of them speak some English, many very well. I speak butchered pigeon Russian, Spanish, school French, but little Italian — still, this was no great problem. Winter in Rome can be wet, and because it is usually a hot city, there is almost no heating anywhere. You go from cold outside, to cold church to cool museum, so bring a sweater or hooded sweatshirt. Otherwise, January is a great time to travel — no crowds, no waiting, no searing heat, no thieves, no rules. Rome is eminently walkable, with hundreds of piazzas (practically every intersection is a piazza), fountains and columns. Everywhere you go you encounter fabled sites from history, books, language, school, and movies. Strolling towards a bus stop from the Pantheon, I blundered across the Trevi Fountain, where Nordic beauty Anna Ekberg invited Marcello Mastroianni to bathe with her in “La Dolce Vita.” But after a few days in Rome, you stop noticing these surprise meetings: you get the feeling that not only all roads lead to Rome, but that everything big in history happened right here.

• Getting there — Tickets are around $550 from Alitalia and $450 from Aeroflot.

• Visas — Italy is one place that likes Americans — no visas needed for three months. The same goes for Australians and Canadians. Russians need a tourist visa, which usually lasts for three weeks and is relatively easy to get.

• Transportation — A one-day pass for metro, bus and train is four euros, or 16 euros for one week. Dollar quoted the best car hire rates: 29 euros a day at Termini Station. Bicycle and scooter rentals start at ten euros a day at Cyclo.

• Accommodation — Cristina House has five locations around Termini train station with hostel rooms for 11 euros and separate rooms for 55-70 euros with TV and free breakfast. If you don’t like surprises, head to the Best Western, which has rooms for 99 euros single and 169 double. For Art Deco glamour, the Forum Hotel is gorgeous, and overlooks Trajan’s Market and the Forum. Single rooms are 130 euros, double rooms are 190 euros.

• Money — Change your rubles to euros before you go — nobody likes them here. The only place that changes them take a whopping 32 percent. Or use ATMs. Rome is expensive, especially for food in supermarkets. At restaurants, look for the multi-course package for 10-15 euros, separately one can easily spend 50 euros. Pizza joints are everywhere, sometimes five a block, but meat is rare (at least pepperoni).

issue cover
jan. 17-23
issue #1 (300)2008 pdf


Dollar, 34 Via Giolotti, +39 840-705-506

Cyclo, 80 Via Cavour, +39 645-435-799

Cristina House, 65 Via Castro Pretorio, +39 644-704-586

Best Western Hotel, 19 Via Palestro, +39 064-441-483

Forum Hotel, 23 Via Tor de Conti, +39 667-924-46


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