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ROME, CAPUT MUNDI

THE ETERNAL CITY

By Fabrizio Fiorenzano

 

No Capital city in the world manages to stimulate as much historical, artistic and cultural interest as Rome, the “eternal city”.

Roma, caput mundi (Rome, capital of the world).  Birth cradle of our world and history, just its name immediately evokes the idea of empire – civilization and history, ruthless conquests, philosophy and religion, architecture and engineering, science and technology, mother of the Latin language, origin of Christianity.  There is no corner in the Mediterranean, from central Europe to the middle East, where traces of the greatest civilization and most powerful empire ever existed are not found.

 

As the legend goes, Rome was founded on April 21st 753 B.C. by Romulus, brother of Remus.  The tale tells us of a farmer who, upon hearing noises originating from some woods nearby, discovered a she-wolf breastfeeding two baby boys.  The farmer and his wife adopted the boys and raised them as if they were their own children.  Once they became adults, the two young men went to explore the shores of the Tiber River to found a new city.  They agreed that the one of the two who would have spotted the most birds flying would have chosen its name.

 

Romulus won the contest and traced the borders of the new city around the Palatino Hill with his plough, and called it Roma.  The she-wolf who had nursed the two baby boys became the symbol of the new city.

 

To best enjoy the beauties of Rome and its various attractions, the suggested itinerary begins with a visit to the Colosseum (also known as “Amphitheatre Flavius”), which can be easily reached by taking the “B” subway line.  Emperor Vespasianus built this monument, one of the most famous in the world.  It is a large arena where various shows and often cruel games were organized for the Roman citizens, whose thirst for violent entertainment could be satisfied only by the ferocious fights of the gladiators.

 

All military victories, religious festivities and anniversaries were celebrated with violent shows of combat.  Up to 70,000 shouting spectators watched the gladiators fight one another in deadly duels.  Beneath the arena surface, a labyrinth of underground passages was home to fierce beasts and gladiators.  Among screams and roars, the combatants and fierce animals were lifted up on elevators to the arena floor, to be welcomed by a delirious public.  The Colosseum is also well known for the ferocious persecutions of the early Christians, which lasted until 313 AD when Emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be the official religion of the empire and prohibited all arena games that involved human deaths.

 

 

 

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The Colosseum is open to visitors every day for a modest admission of 8 euros.  It is necessary for security reasons to go through a metal detector at the entry, and it is possible to have one's photograph taken together with one of the many men dressed up as ancient Roman soldiers.

 

Our itinerary continues through the Roman Foro to Piazza Venezia. This large square took its name from the Palazzo Venezia, a palace built in 1455, where from its central balcony Mussolini addressed the Italian nation during the Fascist years in pre-war Italy.  The scenographic Vittoriano dominates one side of the square, or “Altar of the homeland”, built in 1878 at the death of Italy's first modern king Vittorio Emanuele I.  The construction of the Vittoriano, the supreme monument to Italian national unity, unfortunately destroyed the ancient medieval area in central Rome where Michelangelo had lived all his life.  It was closed to the general public until the year 2000, when President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi finally allowed general access to it.

 

Not far from Piazza Venezia is Via del Corso, the main street in downtown Rome, a meeting area popular especially among teenagers.  It is also a great shopping area with over 1km of stores, particularly women’s clothing.  From Via del Corso it is very easy to reach one of the most beautiful spots in Rome: the Fountain of Trevi (1735).  Almost every tourist visiting Rome stops here to admire this wonderful and impressive structure, considered to be one of the most beautiful fountains in the world.

 A popular superstitious belief is that if a visitor drops a coin in the fountain, it is certain that he or she is destined to return to Rome at some time in the future.  So popular is this custom that the money that is periodically collected from the bottom of the fountain is given to charity.  This fountain was also featured in a very famous scene of Federico Fellini's movie “Dolce Vita”, one of the most important movies in the history of Italian cinema, with Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni.

It is pleasant and relaxing to spend a few minutes sitting on the edge of the fountain, listening to the sound of the running water or to the horses pulling the carts with tourists.

This area is also rich with typical Roman restaurants and cafés, but prices in the historical centre are also rather steep – in Piazza Trevi a can of soda may cost up to 2.50 euros.

 

Continuing our itinerary through Via Poli and Via di Propaganda, we reach the very heart of Rome, the most famous and popular Piazza di Spagna, which took its name from the palace home to the Spanish Embassy.  This charming and wonderful square is the most important meeting point for both Romans and the thousands of tourists who have been populating it 24 hours a day all year long for the last two centuries at least.  Piazza di Spagna is also a very elegant shopping area, very close to Via Margutta and Via del Babbuino where many artists live and work, between Piazza di Spagna and Piazza del Popolo.

 

 The stairs of Trinità dei Monti (1753) are another very popular destination that has recently doubled as a picturesque background for many fashion shows – at the top of the stairs is the panoramic terrace of the Pincio from which one may enjoy one of the most pleasant views of central Rome.

 Across Trinità dei Monti begins Via dei Condotti, renowned for its elegant and refined stores of Italian fashion clothing.  Armani, Versace, Valentino, Ferragamo, Prada and Bulgari are only a few of the many world-famous fashion designers whose stores may be found along this very central Roman avenue, now frequented by a rather diverse public.  Here is also the famous Caffè Greco, where many Italian and foreign artists and intellectuals use to gather.  While strolling along Via dei Condotti it is also easy to encounter one of the many exceptionally skilled mimes who, posing perfectly still as if they were made of stone, may be mistaken for real statues unless one pays close attention to them.

 

Two other interesting stops are the Pantheon (27 BC) and Piazza Navona.

The Pantheon is found in Piazza della Rotonda, that the Romans call Piazza del Pantheon, near Piazza Minerva where the fountain designed by Giacomo della Porta under commission by Pope Gregory XIII is found.

 Here at the Pantheon are many famous and typical restaurants and cafes where tourists gather and spend some pleasant time.  Particularly recommended is the ristorante Agrippa (closed on Sundays) where it is possible to dine outdoors in a cool garden during the hot season, enjoying traditional Roman gastronomic specialties and a nice outside view at the same time.  Food is truly excellent here and it is all made to order.

 

For those interested in a really remarkable experience however, the place to go to in this area is the  “Supperclub” in Via de' Nari 14, listed by the British magazine “Restaurant” as one of the top 50 restaurants in the world.  Of course, reservations are necessary – this is the reference point for the artistic and cultural avant-gardes of the city, where everything looks like a live painting and the entire scene appears to be almost a theatrical stage.  Just like ancient Romans, the patrons are invited to lie down in white couches and enjoy the local Mediterranean fusion cuisine while various artists, dancers and models perform around them in a playful carousel of lights and colours.  It is also possible to enjoy a relaxing and energizing Shiatsu massage here.

 

Piazza Navona, with its Fontana dei Fiumi, is an ideal starting point for pleasant night strolls along the narrow and picturesque streets of the neighbourhood – an atmosphere that may be found also in the areas surrounding Campo de' Fiori and the Trevi Fountain.  During the day, street merchants selling souvenirs of Rome and many street artists and painters who take quick portraits of the tourists or sell fine prints of the city populate the square.  Restaurants and cafés follow one another and are always very busy, perfectly integrating themselves into the harmonic yet solemn architectonic appeal of the city.

 

 One should not leave Rome without visiting two other points of great interest: the ancient and characteristic neighbourhood of Trastevere and the Vatican.

 They say in Rome that only those whom were born in Trastevere may be considered a true Roman.  The best time to visit the place is in the evening, crossing Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere and enjoying the show of the ancient historical buildings and of the very characteristic trattorie, where a number of Romans go at night to spend some quiet time relaxing and enjoying the atmosphere and the air in the heart of Rome.

 

isiting the Vatican and the huge St. Peter's square and Basilica is instead an extraordinarily impressive experience, regardless of the visitor's religious beliefs.  The sheer dimension and holiness of the world centre of Christianity and its church leaves everyone amazed.  Armed with a lot of patience, after standing in a long line and going through a security check one can enter the main Basilica.  From here it is possible to take an elevator to reach a balcony at the first level, and then from there to the top of the Sistine Chapel through a narrow and long staircase, from where it is possible to enjoy a 360 degree view of all of Rome.  Seniors and people suffering from claustrophobia or of a heart condition are advised to refrain from walking the stairs to the top, however, and instead should stop at the balcony where a breathtaking view is guaranteed.  In case one is planning a visit to the Vatican it is also recommended to make sure that there are no official visits scheduled for the same day, and to remember that the Pope celebrates Mass in St. Peter's Basilica every Wednesday morning.  In both cases, nobody will be allowed to enter the Vatican.

 

n conclusion, it is safe to say that unlike many European and other large cities around the world, Rome definitely manages to enchant and charm visitors with its great vitality and monumental beauty.  The large spaces, the avenues lined with trees, the cordiality of the people, the safe streets and the constant attention to the needs of the tourist make a holiday spent in the eternal city an unforgettable experience.

 

FABRIZIO FIORENZANO