I'm not entirely
convinced that Jubilee year is the best time to see Rome for the
first time. Nevertheless, I found myself there on my maiden trip
a couple of weeks ago. Like most cities that are unfamiliar on any
first visit, Rome seemed huge and sprawling. But I've learned in
recent years that with familiarity comes shrinkage. It happened
with Paris, there was no reason why it shouldn't happen with Rome.
I had a list of things I wanted to do with my time in Rome. All,
I confess, very obvious for anyone's first visit.
The first evening I had the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain on
my hit-list. My hotel was located in one of Rome's seedier areas
- next to the Termini. Very convenient we thought - Rail/Metro and
bus terminal right next to the hotel. To the outside eye it was
the centre of all modes of transport in the city. However, under
closer scrutiny, it turned out like most railway terminals in cities
- it was the red light area and drug-haven by night. But we were
told that we were lucky' to be so central in Jubilee year
- an event that occurs every 25 years. I bought my metro ticket
at a newspaper kiosk in the underground metropolis of the Termini
- a shopping mall packed with shops and eateries which went on for
miles, and we headed off to Spagna' the nearest metro stop
to the Spanish Steps, which according to my map were just a short
walk, from the Trevi Fountain. Rome's metro system differs greatly
from any other I'd come across. Firstly, there are only two lines:
A line and B line. What could be easier?
Secondly, because there are only two lines, it has the disadvantage
of not going anywhere that you really want to. Therefore, for the
most part you have to take a bus. The problem with buses in cities
that you don't know is that you have no real idea of knowing when
you have reached your destination unless of course, you have a friendly
bus driver which alas, is a scarce commodity in peak tourist season.
On a metro system it's easy - you can very quickly check that you
are heading in the right direction as all the stops are clearly
marked on the walls.
On my first evening I was lucky, the metro did go where I wanted
to go. Perfect. I made a little mistake, but one which I believe
anybody could make. I got on the B line, even though I had followed
the signs very carefully for the A line. After about twenty minutes,
I was heading back to the Termini and quickly found the correct
line. I had missed a turning but
I had learned a valuable lesson; the B line is not as popular, or
as frequent as the A line.
I eventually got the stop Spagna' which, I couldn't believe,
had all of its exits sealed off. Jubilee Year,' I told my
travelling companions with a shrug. We followed the signs for the
alternative exits; after all there had to be some way out. The exit
to Via Veneto and Villa Borghese were offered to us as the alternatives
and as we had no choice, we went off in search of the street and
Via Veneto came first. Again sealed off. Jubilee Year,' I
echoed to my buddies. After walking for a further 25 minutes traipsing
through derelict shopping malls, we came to the surface feeling
like wombles who should have stayed on Wimbledon Common. In front
of me was the Villa Borghese, famous for something, I guess. We
had gone down in daylight but by the time we came up it was 9.25pm,
and already pitch-black. We walked for what seemed like an hour,
and very nearly was and finally came to the Spanish Steps illuminated
before us in all their splendour by floodlights. Hang on a minute,
floodlights? Yes, floodlights. There was to be a fashion show in
four days time and they had closed the steps for four whole days
Jubilee Year' - my buddies said. They were getting the hang
of Rome. Unable to see the Spanish Steps without wearing sunglasses,
we walked the back-alley route to the Trevi Fountain. Sometimes,
you go and visit something you've long heard about, and inevitably
it disappoints. Is that it?' springs to mind more often than
not. But not this time. As you turn the corner from yet another
back alley, there it is. Beautifully lit, people gathered eating
gelato, and throwing their three coins into the fountain. Allegedly
the coins are meant to bring you luck, love and the third is said
to ensure your return to Rome. Complete twaddle if you ask me. However,
I did throw my coins in, just in case there is any truth to this
ridiculous ritual. Always best to keep your options open.
Unfortunately, today Rome is as notorious for its high crime rate
as it is for the amazing wonders it has to offer. Pickpockets operate
on every train; teams on scooters snatching bags and anyone looking
like a tourist is a prime target. I had heard about the horrors
of the train, and the old cliche forewarned is forearmed'
is a good one to remember. We were on our guard and pickpocketing
really was as blatant on the trains as we'd heard.
The teams' hold newspapers over their arms whilst their hand
underneath ransacks your pockets looking for goodies. We came to
no harm, although various attempts were made, and unzipped pockets
were left as a stark reminder. I did feel sorry for one particular
man who happened to be carrying a newspaper on the train. Perhaps
innocently, but maybe not. I had a funny thought as we nudged, winked
and nodded at one another up and down the train - what if he was
just a commuter but who happened to have bought a paper that evening.
We did' the Vatican - something that was again a sight worth
seeing. Standing in an empty St Peter's Square with all the papal
' paraphernalia - a tent to protect him from the midday sun in high
summer, the balcony where he appears on high days and holidays.
I'm not religious in the least, but there was something quite majestic
and regal about the whole thing. The holy door,' opened once
every 25 years at the entrance to St Peter's Church, was open for
the world to go through to be redeemed and forgiven for their sins
- at least for the next 25 years anyway. I went through, naturally,
just on the off chance that there is some truth in it. Keeping my
We finished our tour of Rome with a visit to the Vatican museum
and the Sistine Chapel - where Michelangelo painted the ceiling
whilst lying on his back. Somebody asked me when I got back if the
Sistine Chapel and the ceiling were as amazing as one would expect.
To be honest, and I hate to confess this, by the time I reached
that point, my feet hurt so much from walking around Rome for two
days, I had seen more museums than I would ever care to visit again,
and to my eyes it was just another painted ceiling.
© Yvette Barnett. 08/2000.