Where Saints Go for the Weekend - Rome, Italy
Often referred to as the birthplace of Western civilisation itself, there’s nowhere quite like Rome. With its unparalleled wealth of historical monuments, buildings, statues and echoes of its former Roman Empire days, there’s a good reason why they say it wasn’t built in a day! That’s why this week, we’re offering a lifestyle blog that demonstrates to all our Saints the very best of what this ancient wonder has to offer. Our co-founders Mark and Tracey scoped the place out recently and couldn’t recommend it highly enough! Read on to discover the secret sauce that this thriving hub of culture has on offer.
“I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble”
Augustus, Roman Emperor
A City of History Like No Other
Rome has often been referred to as the birthplace of Western civilisation, and it’s hard to argue against the point.
Founded by and named after King Romulus in 753 BC, Rome actually started out as a populous site well before this, making the city well over 2,700 years old! After its early beginnings with an ethnic mixture of inhabitants (including Latins, Etruscans and Sabines), it eventually become the capital of the then ever-growing and extraordinarily influential Roman Empire. It was to remain capital of this sprawling European and subsequently North African behemoth until 476 AD when Romulus Augustulus, often referred to as the last Roman Emperor, was deposed.
After the fall of the Empire, during the Middle Ages Rome itself began to be controlled and heavily influenced by the Papacy. By the 700s it became capital of the Papal States, a title it held for well over a thousand years before having its role transformed into capital of the new Kingdom of Italy in 1871. This then became known as the Italian Republic after the fall of dictator Benito Mussolini and the end of the Second World War; this is how we know Rome as it appears today.
With a history as rich as this, it’s not hard to see where the past has left its indelible marks on a place of such immense culture and incredible heritage.
So, you’ve just landed and bagged yourself a gorgeous hotel overlooking this great city. Where to start? If it’s culture you’re into, then Rome will not disappoint. Here’s our list of unmissable sights inside the city like no other…
“From the dome of St. Peter’s one can see every notable object in Rome… He can see a panorama that is varied, extensive, beautiful to the eye, and more illustrious in history than any other in Europe”
Sights, sights, sights galore!
Let’s face it, Europe is full to the brim with jaw-dropping buildings, monuments and historical sights that you could spend half a lifetime exploring.
But when it comes to Rome, they’ve re-written the rule book when it concerns places and buildings of interest.
No matter where you turn, there’s a statue, a cathedral, an ancient gladiatorial stadium, a marble fountain or something else to become completely besotted by, such is the beauty of this city.
We’ll start with the easy ones. Right at the top of most people’s bucket list when it comes to Rome’s sights is the inimitable Colosseum.
Built around 70 AD for Emperors Vespasian and Titus, the Colosseum is Ancient Roman architecture on steroids. Built as an amphitheatre for gladiatorial contests, public entertainment, battle re-enactments and many more sources of theatre for the people of Rome and its vast Empire, this was the forefather of the modern stadium as we know it today.
Originally built to hold up to 80,000 spectators (thus according to the Codex-Calendar of 354 – current day estimations place this number nearer to 50,000), this place really was, and still is a colossal feat of engineering. It was the largest example of its kind in the world in its day, and has fortunately stayed relatively intact during its near 2,000 year lifespan. Earthquakes over the years have taken their toll on its structure however, so much so that the current exterior of the theatre was once originally only the interior wall – sadly, rather little remains of the original exterior wall.
To access the Colosseum back in Roman times, spectators had tickets in the form of numbered shards of pottery, and were allocated seats based on their class, or caste. All women, slaves and ‘plebeians’ were given seats right at the very top, with arguably the worst view and were typically given standing room only. The higher class you were, generally the nearer to the front you were able to sit. Senators got front row views, whilst special boxes were reserved for Emperors and Vestal Virgins situated front and centre. This hierarchical system has retained its use today; for example, the Royal Box on Wimbledon Centre Court is reserved for royalty, celebrities and other people of noteworthy status.
Once inside, one of the most exciting events to see would no doubt have been a gladiatorial battle, but other contests and displays proved popular too. One of the most gruesome of these involved individuals who had been sentenced to death being sent into the Colosseum arena, naked and unarmed, and made to fight for their survival against animals sent over from Africa and the Middle East, such as lions, panthers, bears, tigers and elephants. In Latin, these contests were known as Damnatio ad bestias, or ‘condemnation to beasts’. Now that’s some pretty raw entertainment!
Access to the Colosseum today is by ticket only as well – some things never change! A standard ticket for €16 grants you access to the Colosseum once but does not include access to the arena floor. This ticket is valid for one day and also includes a visit to the Roman Forum.
A ‘full experience’ ticket for €22 is valid for 2 days, and give you access to the whole arena and the underground section. The Roman Forum experience is also included. EU citizens aged 18-25 only pay €2, whilst those aged under 18 have free access. Other deals are available online, including guided tours and ‘experience’ tickets, so shop around to find your perfect fit. You can also pay extra to beat the queues if you so wish to do so. One thing is certain – a visit to Rome is not complete without seeing the Colosseum.
The smallest country in the world, and the only example of a country contained within a city.
Yes, Vatican City is technically its own independent city state, such is it significance. Also known simply as The Vatican, this holy site is a must-visit for Roman Catholics; the Apostolic Palace is the official home of the Pope, and the grandeur of its buildings, statues and artworks are breathtaking.
Art fanatics will want to head straight for the Sistine Chapel. The ceiling is famous for being painted by Michelangelo over the course of just four years, between 1508 and 1512 at the request of Pope Julius II.
That’s pretty efficient, considering the sheer scale and quality of the frescos he adorned the ceiling with!
“Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving”
Johann Wolfgang Goethe, 1787
St. Peter’s Square, which is overlooked by St. Peter’s Basilica, is also one to tick off the list as soon as you arrive. From the Basilica, this is where the Pope gives his weekly Papal audiences every Wednesday. Tickets are required for this event, so do your research before deciding to go along. This is a chance to see the Pope in person, witness him give an address in Latin and also hear some prayers. Even if you’re not religious, this is a once-in-a-lifetime event that’s well witnessing if you get the opportunity.
St. Peter’s Square itself is a wonderful open space that’s ideal for taking some photographs, so get snapping and immerse yourself in this hub of religious, cultural and historical beauty and heritage.
Speaking of squares, (or piazzas as they’re known in Italian) Rome is one of the best locations in the world to sit and watch the world go by. One of the most stunning of these is the Piazza di Trevi – the square which holds the spectacular Trevi Fountain.
The most famous fountain in Rome and one of the most famous in the world, it’s a perfect homage to the Baroque style in sculpture form. It depicts several historical figures, including Neptune (God of the Sea), and other figures representing Abundance (on the left) and Salubrity (on the right). Spectacular enough in the daytime, once it goes dark the entire fountain is illuminated in light and again, makes for some fantastic photo opportunities.
Tradition dictates that you should throw a coin into the fountain to guarantee your return to Rome one day. Seems like a pretty fair deal, wouldn’t you say?
Another terrific square to check out is the stunning Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere. Also home to a wonderful fountain to admire and photograph, this is surrounded by some lovely bars and cafes; sit with a coffee or a beer and allow yourself to soak up the atmosphere of this breathtaking city. Sitting on the steps of the fountain is also a great way of enjoying this beautiful square. As with the Trevi Fountain, once night falls the lights that illuminate the surrounding buildings really add to the romantic ambiance of the area.
Independent Stores vs Big Business
One of the things that struck Mark and Tracey particularly starkly when visiting Rome was the welcome abundance of local, independent businesses, retailers especially. Interior design stores, clothing stores and boutiques are thriving in this part of the world, which marks a strong contrast with the retail landscape in the UK.
Lovers of vintage clothing stores and quirky designer independent traders will be in their element in Rome – bohemian style items are commonplace; Rome is a great city to do some really specific shopping for unique gifts that are hard to come by back home.
The Rione Monti district, for example, is a hotspot for seeking out some of these local stores that should be supported in favour of the big chain stores and businesses that tend to dominate towns and city centres in the UK.
It’s very easy to compare this retail landscape with that of the UKs. In Britain, a walk down your average high street shows a typical landscape that is littered with chain stores and those all too familiar big brands that seem to lack the personal, unique nature that your smaller independent stores offer. The service you receive is often markedly different too.
In an independent shop, the workers are often the owners too, so they are all too keen for your business and go the extra mile to make you feel welcome in their store and give you an insight into their unique, designer items on sale.
By way of contrast, the owners of your big brand chains in the UK are often miles away in head offices, not down on the shop floor level interacting and making personal connections with their customers. This can lead to a sense of detachment and a lack of passion and engagement from the moment you walk inside.
With the way the retail landscape is changing, especially in the UK with large, well-known brands rapidly disappearing from our high street, could the future of physical shopping (as opposed to online) be more invested in these smaller, often friendlier and more distinctive independent fashion stores? Somewhere that can provide a personal touch to each and every customer that walks through the door?
The high street of the not too distant future could conceivably result in an increase in these small businesses. Larger chains, at least in their physical form have lately struggled to entice customers into their shops more and more.
The boom of online shopping has played a massive part in this, but the recent COVID-19 pandemic has also been a catalyst for huge change in the retail sector. Big brands that were already in trouble now have to contend with local lockdowns and an enforced limit on the number of customers allowed in store. Smaller, independent retailers on the other hand, still offer something than can encourage people to leave their homes and make a special trip to a shop that offers something truly unique.
Specifics areas in Rome to head for if you’ve got a yearning for small and friendly shops with distinctive goods are fortunately aplenty. Head to Monti for a local neighbourhood style area to do your shopping in. The Romans themselves love it, and often that’s a good sign. If anyone knows the best areas of a city, it’s the locals. It’s wall-to-wall bijou jewellers and fashion designers up and down the narrow streets of this distinctive section of Rome.
Another great location for smaller retailers is the Via del Governo Vecchio. Vintage boutiques are commonplace down this beautiful street, so head here if you’ve got a craving for bohemian, designer distressed and downright gorgeous goodies that you’d be hard-pressed to find in the UK unless you really knew where to look.
One of our other top picks whilst you’re here is Trastevere. Yes, that’s right, the same location as the stunning fountain we recommended earlier is also home to a fine selection of independent retailer vying for your custom. Trastevere is a terrific location to browse and discover some real oddities. Examples of the kind of stores you can find here include some gorgeous perfume shops, watch shops and jewellers too. And of course, you can finish your day of shopping with a lovely glass of vino or whatever takes your fancy at one of the bars in the area.
We really think that Rome has opened our eyes to how the UK shopping landscape could look one day, or perhaps hope will come to fruition. Out of town shopping malls and corporate brands are all very well for some things, but the experience of browsing a one-off family business just has that extra element of soul and identity that can’t be replicated by the former. And with the way the shape of our high streets is rapidly changing, we may need to watch this space to determine whether a similar revolution may come to our shores eventually. Only time will tell on this one.
When in Rome, as they often say. Well, there’s certainly no shortage of things to do in this stunning city.
In general, Rome is small and intimate enough to get around on foot, so it pays to sometimes just have a wander and see what other secrets you may uncover just by chance. Prices are also reasonable at the moment, so don’t worry about breaking the bank unless you’re seeking out the very best hotels and restaurants during your stay in this ancient wonder.
We hope that this little travel blog has been useful for you this week. Rome is a jewel in the crown that is Italy, a country with so much culture and historical beauty that it can be mind-boggling just taking it all in!
But if you’re in dire need of a long weekend trip that’s just a short flight away from the UK, Rome has it all. Culture fanatics could spend years exploring this treasure trove of a city. So make sure you consider this must-see wonder at least once in your lifetime. It’s well worth your time, we can assure you.
So until next time, Saints, as they say in Italy…
Feel the Love!