Amazing Rome tugs at the heart

“What did the Romans ever do  for us’ is surely the silliest question ever.

One of the world’s most beautiful destinations and the capital of a wonderful country, the Eternal City has long held a special place in our hearts.

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It has a warm embrace of history that you can feel in the air; a sense of walking in the shoes of civilisation and of stepping back centuries.

Built by Romulus in about 753 BC, Rome is a cosmopolitan city with thousands of years of influential art, architecture and culture.

Our favourite sight is the wonderful Roman Pantheon, an ancient temple dedicated to all the gods of pagan Rome. On our last visit, we stood transfixed as the marble walls echoed to a solitary angelic voice singing what we took to be an Italian hymn.

See this remarkable moment:

Completed by the emperor Hadrian about 126 AD on the site of a building that dates to about 27 BC, the Pantheon is the best preserved  building of ancient Rome

Almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon’s dome is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. Michelangelo is said to have studied it before starting work on the roof of St. Peter’s Basilica.

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The oculus, the only source of natural light in the Pantheon, is a round opening in the centre of the dome. It is 27 feet in diameter and open to the sky (the floor is gently sloped to allow for runoff of rainwater).

Since the 7th century, the Pantheon has been used as a church, informally known by the locals as ‘Santa Maria Rotonda’ with its striking stone pillars and incredible acoustics.

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The square in front of the Pantheon is called Piazza della Rotonda and is surrounded by cute Italian coffee shops.

There is so much to see and do in Rome – from the ancient ruins of the Roman Forum and the Colosseum, to the sparkle of the Trevi Fountain; the treasures of Vatican City; the Spanish Steps; the mysterious catacombs; and the wonderful monument known as the Altare della Patria, or ‘Altar of the Fatherland’.

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But, if you haven’t seen it  before, make sure you find time to visit the Pantheon during your visit to the Eternal City.

The Pantheon is located right in the heart of ancient Rome. It is open to the public daily except for some national holidays and if a Mass is taking place.

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Proving that size doesn’t count

It may be the world’s smallest state, but Vatican City is still one of the most remarkable attractions on the planet.

With a population of about 1,000, Citta del Vatican takes up 44 hectares of Rome. Italy.

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But when you pass through the gates and enter the walled city, you are in a sovereign state whose borders are guarded by the traditional Swiss Guard – obvious in their distinctive striped uniforms and berets.

We were unsure what to expect – and asked ourselves whether it was likely to be something that would appeal only to active Christians.

However, we soon realised the error of that thinking.

A visit to the Apostolic Palace, or Palazzo Apostolic, broadens the mind – and allows you to see truly astonishing sights.

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St Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel and Vatican museums feature some of the world’s most famous paintings and sculptures.

Seeing these masterpieces of human endeavour was always an aim of ours – and the experience was even more fulfilling than we’d anticipated.

The domed ceiling of St Peter’s Basilica – designed by Michelangelo – is unforgettable; double columns, gabled windows, striking colours and a double calotte soaring 136.57 metres from its base to the tip of the crowning cross.

Visitors are able to climb to the top of the dome, although we’ve never tried.

Eleven museums

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There are 11 museums  that feature some of the most magnificent frescos imaginable.

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The wonderful Sistine Chapel

And, of course there is the famous Sistine Chapel that packs in the crowds, but will leave you shaking your head at the amazing painting of  both Michelangelo and Botticelli.

The blue ceiling of the chapel is surely one of the world’s greatest sights.

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Outside, the emptiness of St Peter’s Square is softened by a series of Vatican gardens, complete with fountain, fish pond and an enclosure for rabbits.

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Every now and then, we saw glimpses of everyday life in this city within a city.

Apparently, the Vatican radio station broadcasts all over the world in 29 languages; there is a city television station; a daily newspaper; shops; offices; and a post office with Vatican stamps.

A passport is not required for visitors entering Vatican City from the surrounding Italian territory.

It’s free to enter St Peter’s Square and Basilica and the entrance fee to the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel is well worth the cost.

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If you have the opportunity, find the time to visit Vatican City.

Regardless of whether you are a spiritual person or not, this experience is something that will stay with you for the rest of your life.

 

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Venture into Rome’s historic catacombs

Not all the wonders of Rome, Italy, are above ground.

If you are able to walk down steep stairs and along narrow tunnels, a visit to the catacombs – or underground cemeteries – of the Eternal City is both fascinating and memorable.

There are several choices, but we’ve been to the Catacombs of Callixtus, which are beneath a 90 acre site off the famous Appian Way – contain a network of galleries in four levels, more than 20 metres below the surface.IMG_0606

In this catacombe – which dates to the middle of the second century – were buried tens of martyrs, many Popes and hundreds of thousands of Christians.  Their graves were carved through tufo, a soft volcanic rock, outside the walls of the city, because Roman law forbade burial places within city limits.

Tours of the Catacombe of Callixtus are conducted in several languages and we were told of an area known as ‘The Little Vatican’, so called because it was the official burial place of many Popes.

Our guide explained that in tunnels explored to date, archaeologists had found the tombs of about 500,000 people.

He also pointed out that the patron saint of music, Saint Cecilia, was initially buried in the catacombe, though her body was later removed.

The Catacombe of Callixtus was almost lost during the Middle Ages, when the area was no longer used and fell into disrepair. Centuries later, the underground cemetery was explored and studied in the 1500’s and again in the 19th Century – and is now open for visitors to inspect.

We thoroughly recommend it, however stress that ascending the steps into the tunnels can be steep and somewhat arduous. See details of opening times.

We made our way to the site by train and local bus.

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Favourite attraction: The Duomo of Florence, Italy

The skyline of Florence is completely dominated by the spectacular cathedral dome of Santa Maria del Fiore.

Every photograph or postcard we’d ever seen of this gorgeous Italian city had featured at least part of theimposing orange brick dome.

It was our first stop after checking-in to the Sheraton Florence.

Dwarfing the ancients

At 91 metres, the dome of the Duomo was designed to dwarf even the great buildings of ancient Greece and Rome.

As we climbed the 436 steps to the top, we quickly understood the enormous size of the cathedral, which is roughly as big as a modern football stadium, holding up to 20,000 people and is the tallest building in Florence.

White, green and pink marble

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The cathedral is elegantly partnered with the adjoining Campanile, an 85-metre tower built in 1359 and clad in the same white, green and pink Tuscan marble that adorns the Duomo.

We recommend exploring the crypt that contains the remains of the 4th Century church of Santa Reparata, which was demolished in 1296 to make way for the Duomo.

Check the ‘Gates of Paradise’

Near the main entrance, across the Piazza Di San Giovanni, you’ll see another of the oldest buildings in Florence, the Baptistry, perhaps also dating to the 4th Century.

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Once inside, look up at the colourful mosaics above the large octagonal font where many famous Florentines, such as Dante, were baptised.

Outside, you’ll marvel at the ornate golden-coloured East Doors, dubbed by Michelangelo as the “Gates of Paradise”.

Tombs of Galileo and Michelangelo

The other major church in Florence’s City Centre East is the Santa Croce, which contains the tombs of many great Florentines including Galileo, Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Leonardo Bruni.

Santa Croce is also clad in coloured marble

IMG_0268Getting there

Florence, which is often described as the ‘Cradle of the Renaissance’ is the heart of Italy’s Tuscany Region, north of Rome.

Trains run between the two cities from Rome Termini and Tiburtina stations.

Fast train connections cover the trip in about one-and-a-half hours, while slower trains take between two and four hours.

The A1 Autostrada (toll road) connects Rome to Florence, a distance of 180 miles or 250 kilometres.

A trip between the two cities usually takes about two hours and 53 minutes.

Florence can also be reached directly by air.

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