Welcome to 2015's A–Z Challenge. This year I'm taking you on a tour of one of my favourite cities!

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Z – Zesty

The zesty photo that illustrates this final post was taken in the grounds of the Galleria Borghese (Borghese Museum and Gallery)in the magnificent gardens of Villa Borghese.

The exhibits are housed on several floors of the 17th century villa. Masterpieces tussle with each other, competing to outshine their rivals, they all offer the wow factor.

One floor is dedicated to sculpture and there are two pieces in particular that I will never forget. Pauline Bonaparte by Antonio Canova and the Rape of Proserpina by Bernini are simply exquisite. Photos can’t possibly do them justice – even if I were allowed to reproduce them. Throw in Caravaggio’s Boy With a Bucket of Fruit, and I suspect a visit here would satisfy the fussiest of art fanatic.

Since my visit I’ve often spotted exhibits from the collection on TV, in programmes about either the artists or Italian art in general.


And so that brings to a close my contribution to this year’s A–Z Challenge. I do hope you’ve enjoyed my tour of Rome.

Much of the content was based on a book I self-published earlier this year My Roman Holiday. I’m not suggesting you buy it, it’s a self-indulgent memoir stuffed full of my holiday snaps. 

I wrote it because I wanted to try Amazon’s CreateSpace paperback publishing service. If you’re considering self-publishing a book, have a look at my jargon-free website that explains how I did it. Follow the link by clicking here.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Y – Yellow

I’m not an artist. If I were, I’d be able to wax lyrical about the shades of orange and yellow that create the stunning sunset in this photo.

The view is from the hotel mentioned earlier – D – and every evening I would watch as the sun set behind the Arcibasilica Papale di San Giovanni in Laterano.

I’m sure every sunset in Rome is spectacular, but I do feel this view would be hard to beat!

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

X – X-ray

 Fatebenefratelli Hospital 
The small island on the Tiber is surprisingly built-up – there’s even a small church, San Bartolomeo all’Isola (St Bartholomew on the Island). It was outside this church, in the small piazza, that Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey, Jr. had their first moment of passion – once he’d haggled over the price of a red rose – in Only You.

This is one of the first areas of the city to be inhabited. The island is one of two in the Tiber (the other is much larger and at the mouth of the river at Ostia).

Near the church is a hospital. Replacing a temple, the hospital has cared for the sick of Rome for centuries. Today it has all the elements of a 21st century hospital, including modern X-ray equipment. 

Monday, 27 April 2015

W – Water

Just outside of Rome near the small town of Tivolli is the Villa d’Este and its spectacular water gardens.

When Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este arrived in Tivoli as civil governor of the town in 1550, the son of Lucrezia Borgia decided the Benedictine monastery was too modest for him. So he embarked on creating something far more grandiose. 

A tunnel was excavated 600 metres long and over two metres in diameter, allowing water to course through at more than 1,200 litres per second. That water was channelled into large tanks, ready to feed the water features. In today’s money, the work would cost a minimum of £100m.

I’m not one for remembering statistics but Google is – 35,000 square metres of gardens, 290 nozzles, 250 waterfalls, 100 ponds, 50 fountains and 3 fishponds. That all adds up to something rather special. 

Saturday, 25 April 2015

V – Vatican

If you can, include a visit to the Vatican Museums on your schedule. Even better than that, pre-book your tickets and avoid the queues.

As one might expect, the various areas become busy – very busy. You’re able to do little other than to go with the flow. But eventually the corridors open up and you have time enjoy the exhibits, especially the ceilings.

I’ve visited a few stately homes in my time. I’ve also been to Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. None can compete with the ceilings of the Vatican Museums. It isn’t just one room or one section – all of the ceilings are beautifully ornate, each a masterpiece in its own right.

Eventually you are fed through a very narrow door and into what is possibly the most highly anticipated exhibit – Cappella Sistina, the Sistine Chapel.

This is the one area where photos are not allowed. As much as I love taking photos, I wasn’t prepared to be thrown out for disobeying that rule – so I am unable to share anything. Hopefully the other images offer some compensation.

Friday, 24 April 2015

U – United Nations

© United Nations
I really am an uninformed traveller. During a visit to the Forum I was distracted by a large poster that adorned a massive building in the distance. Intrigued by this modern intrusion I spotted ‘Fiat’ through my zoom.

I’m sure many motor vehicle fanatics despair at the merest suggestion that I might have considered the building be associated with Fiat cars. Their name is derived from Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino (Italian Automobile Factory Turin) – FIAT for short and eventually becoming Fiat. Was I really the first tourist to confuse Rome with Turin?

Later, I was able to discover that the building was actually home to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Fiat panis is the organisation’s Latin motto, meaning ‘Let there be bread’.

I am grateful to the UN for allowing me to reproduce the photo that illustrates this post (the only photograph in this Challenge that isn’t my own).

Thursday, 23 April 2015

T – Trevi Fountain

The Trevi Fountain
The Fontana di Trevi (Trevi Fountain) is possibly one of the most recognisable landmarks in Rome and is always incredibly busy with tourists. You reach the fountain via a number of narrow roads, turning a corner to be greeted by an explosion of stone and water.

The fountain is actually the facade to the Palazzo Poli, but it’s the fountain most visitors want to see. It was here in Roman Holiday that Hepburn’s character had her hair cut and where Peck’s journalist attempted to borrow a camera from a young child (played by the daughter of the film’s producer and director, William Wyler), hoping to capture the most un-royal of moments. 

There can’t be many visitors who haven’t heard of the tradition of throwing a coin in the fountain, over a shoulder, wishing you will return to Rome. The money collected today is donated to charity. But who wouldn’t want to wish they’d return? The American secretaries in the 1953 film Three Coins in the Fountain certainly did. 

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

S – Spanish Steps

The Spanish Steps
When I first visited the Spanish Steps I was embarrassingly unaware of its history. Most of the visitors who perched on the steps were youngsters, students, and many were reading, lost deep in thought. The plaque on a nearby building revealed the attraction – John Keats had died there in 1821. He was only twenty-five, possibly the average age of those who were undoubtedly immersed in his romantic words.

The building is now the Keats-Shelley House, a museum that records the short lives of two of England’s poets. Shelley died in 1822; he was only twenty-nine.

Beyond the Fontana della Barcaccia (Fountain of the Old Boat) at the base of the steps is Babington’s where they've served tea since the 1890s.

This is, unsurprising, a bustling place. Like much of Rome it remains busy through to the small hours. If you do get a chance to explore Rome by night, try and make it to the Spanish Steps. It’s a very special place.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

R – Roman Holiday

The Mouth of Truth
Near to the Tiber, by its island, is another tourist hot-spot. The Bocca della Verità (the Mouth of Truth) makes an appearance in both Roman Holiday and Only You.

The grand Mouth is in reality rather mundane, but still intriguing. Carved from pavonazzo marble it’s thought to be either part of a 1st century fountain… or a manhole cover.

It’s possible to queue (and pay) to have a photo taken, recreating the Hepburn/Peck and Tomei/Downey scenes from Roman Holiday and Only You. Or you can you sneak your camera through the railings and steal a shot.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Q – Quo Vadis

The Colosseum
Two of my visits to Rome have been organized tours, but it’s still possible to find something special, something unplanned.

Opting out of a visit to some catacombs, I decided to explore a nearby church. The 17th century Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Piante (Church of St Mary in Palmis) is a small church with few windows and little to attract the eye of the casual tourist. A slab of marble on the floor, protected by a grill, looks mildly interesting. There’s also a bust of a very serious looking chap.

The church has another name. It’s also known as Chiesa del Domine Quo Vadis (literally, the Church of ‘Lord, Where Are You Going?’) and is one of the most important churches within the Catholic faith. The church itself is located on the site where St Peter is said to have had a vision of the risen Christ, while fleeing persecution in Rome. He asks Christ, ‘Lord, where are you going?’

The footprints were a copy of a slab that’s now in the nearby Basilica di San Sebastiano and are said to have been miraculously left by Jesus. It’s those feet that give the church its name – palmis being the soles of Jesus’ feet.

And what of that bust? The plaque beneath the sculpture mentioned ‘Premio Nobel’ and ‘Autore’. A little research revealed that it commemorated Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz – author of Quo Vadis – and that he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature (1905) for his ‘outstanding merits as an epic writer’.

The novel is set in Rome in AD 64 and has even made its way to the big screen with three films to its name. MGM dusted it with Hollywood glitter in the epic 1951 version starring Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr, and Peter Ustinov as Nero. There’s a scene in that film where the Christians are thrown to the lions. It’s a violent scene – violent now and for its time (1951). Somehow, without the graphic scenes we demand today, the film still manages to convey the sickening deaths of so many. We use that saying, ‘thrown to the lions’, as something of cliché, but the Colosseum is where it actually happened.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

P – Piazza del Popolo

Piazza del Popolo
At first glance the Piazza del Popolo – the People’s Square – is reminiscent of London’s Trafalgar Square. It has fountains, lions and even a column. Strictly speaking it’s a carved Egyptian obelisk – the obelisco Flamino – and at thirty-six metres is a shorter cousin to Nelson’s. It was originally used as a marker within the arena at Circo Massimo.

The piazza is a large, open space and had once been used for public executions – not something Trafalgar Square can stake a claim on. More recently, Dan Brown’s Langdon had found a half-buried cardinal in the crypt of the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, one of the churches that opens on the piazza.

If you visit this piazza, find the energy to climb the steps and enjoy the spectacular view across Rome. Then carry on along the road and you’ll find yourself at Trinità dei Monti – the church that looks over the Spanish Steps.

Friday, 17 April 2015

O – Oculus

Inside the Pantheon
The Pantheon is another location that features in Angels and Demons. I’ve been lucky enough to visit this temple more than once. Most recently the circular building was almost empty and it was possible to walk around, leisurely taking in its splendour.

Guidebooks list its many attributes, the number of columns, the circumference of the oculus – all worth noting – but you have to take a moment just to enjoy looking at the building.

Many photos appear in books of a shaft of light, searing through the oculus in the domed roof. I count myself lucky that I have witnessed it. 

I’ve had many special moments in Rome, visiting the Pantheon is one of them.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

N – Navona

Piazza Navona
The Piazza Navona is a bustling place with diners eating al fresco and tourists wandering around, enjoying the spectacle of the fountains and statues.

Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) was built in 1651 and includes the Obelisk of Domitian. Domitian was the third and last emperor of the Flavian dynasty, and the 11th emperor of the Roman Empire. There are two other fountains – the Fontana del Moro and the Fontana del Nettuno.

This is an interesting area. Outside the ‘modern’ piazza are signs of the Stadio di Domiziano (Stadium of Domitian), which occupied this area before the new era brought fountains and sculptures to the city. Excavations have been left visible from the pavement and to the untrained eye you might believe you were just looking at the foundations of the relatively more modern 17th century Sant’Agnese in Agone (also called Sant’Agnese in Piazza Navona). 

Although I didn’t venture inside, I have seen photos of the shrine – and skull – of poor St Agnese. She wasn’t, apparently, in agony – Agone is from the Greek and means ‘in the site of the competitions’ – the stadium being built on a Greek model of a sporting arena.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

M – Maximus

Arco di Constantino 
So much of what tourists must see in Rome is in a relatively small area, certainly accessible on foot.

Near the Forum is Circo Massimo (Circus Maximus). Today it looks like a very large school playing field. It’s actually 650 metres in length.

The arena was used for a variety of events and during the time of Trajan it seated 150,000 spectators (some sources quote figures of up to 250,000).

A lack of archaeology at this site has allowed it to be used for modern day rallies and concerts. In 2014 the Rolling Stones used it for one of their venues. Rome is synonymous with ancient relics.

Sadly I don’t have a photograph of this large expanse of grass, so I’m including one of the Arco di Constantino (Arch of Constantine) – just a stroll away. It might look familiar, London’s Marble Arch (designed by John Nash) was modelled on it.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

L – Laterano

Arcibasilica Papale di San
Giovanni in Laterano
The Arcibasilica Papale di San Giovanni in Laterano is not just a church, it’s Rome’s cathedral and the site forms part of the most ancient church in the world – home to the popes before the move to the Vatican. 

Those statues – all fifteen of them – depict Jesus, flanked by John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. The other statues represent influential theologians – Fathers of the Church. At seven metres tall, the statues impress and dominate the skyline. 

Monday, 13 April 2015

K – Keys

The key to true love?
There are many bridges that span the Tiber, but if you want to visit its island it’s likely you’ll use Pont Crestio

When I was last in Rome the bases of the lampposts on the bridge were adorned with mini padlocks. Each bore the initials of couples, lovers who announced their commitment by securing it to the bridge. This seems a popular pastime in Europe, other bridges bearing similar declarations have been stripped of their tokens – before the heavy burden of acknowledging passion became too great. Presumably the couples kept the keys to their respective locks.

It was to this island on the Tiber that Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon would parachute to safety – but only in the novel. In the film it was only the Camerlengo (Chamberlain) who floated to earth as a demonic angel, captivating the crowds in St Peter’s Square.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

J – Julius Caesar

A different kind of epic
Who hasn’t heard of 20th Century Fox’s epic Cleopatra? Sliding the scandal of Taylor and Burton to one side, the film documents the relationship between Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Mark Antony.

Inevitably Rome was going to make a guest appearance. A life-size replica of the Arco di Costantino (Arch of Constantine) was constructed and Cleopatra progressed through it and onwards to the Forum. Sadly, the real arch was constructed in AD 315 – more than 350 years after Cleopatra’s arrival. Never mind, it’s a good scene – it should be as it almost bankrupted the studio. And when did historical accuracy get in the way of a good entrance, especially that of Cleopatra herself?

Friday, 10 April 2015

I – Italian (art)

Section from School of Athens
The Vatican Museums contain fifty-four galleries and a tour will take in some but not all.

It would be easy to pass through and remember it as a blur. Perhaps I do, but Raphael’s frescoes were one element of my tour I do remember in more detail, especially his School of Athens in the Apostolic Palace. 

Many of the frescoes appear in art programmes or documentaries about Italian art. The School of Athens is often featured – perhaps because it’s said to include a likeness of Raphael himself. Various sources question that claim, but it hooked me and I have the photo to prove it. Incredibly it’s permissible to photograph the exhibits.


Thursday, 9 April 2015

H – Hadrian

Hadrian's Villa
The Emperor Adriana (Hadrian – of Wall fame) certainly left his mark on Rome. His mausoleum, Castel Sant’Angelo, dominates the banks of the Tiber and is central to the plot of Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons. But at his villa on the outskirts of the city, it’s clear just how important this emperor was.

The villa covers 300 acres and there’s enough buildings left (albeit in an incomplete condition) to confirm just how talented the engineers of Adriana’s era were. Very little of what remains has restricted access, visitors roam at will. Such a large area demands a full day, sadly I was only able to stay for a few hours.

Since my visit the villa’s been in the news – a new network of caves running under the villa had been found and explored. It’s believed they were used to move cattle and slaves around the area. Adriana wouldn’t have wanted his beautiful vista spoilt by such domestics, so a network of passageways was created. I wasn’t aware that any caves existed and reading of these new ones came as a surprise. It seems that although I had barely scratched the surface, Adriana was digging deeper.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

G – Gelato

I’m not much of a fan of ice cream. It’s okay, but that’s as far as I can commit. In Rome, eating a gelato almost comes with the turf. It was on the Spanish Steps in Roman Holiday that Audrey Hepburn’s princess squandered Gregory Peck’s lire on a gelato.

Audrey looked so cool and sophisticated. If that had been me, it would have melted and dripped on my clothes!

This photo was snapped on the way to the Trevi Fountain. Even if I could resist a gelato, I couldn’t resist the photo opp!

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

F – Forum

The Forum
Even if your visit to Rome is limited by time, there's one place you must see – the Forum.

It's a vast area, but before you weave your way through the columns, get your bearings from the Capitoline Hill – it's from here that I took the photo for today's post.

From the viewpoint you descend towards San Pietro in Vincoli (St Peter in Chains). The church was built in the 5th century to honour the relic of the chains that bound St Peter. The church also houses Michelangelo’s Moses. Though considered a small piece (just under eight foot tall), photographs indicate that it impresses for other reasons. It’s actually part of a much larger work, created as a tomb for Pope Julius II.

Monday, 6 April 2015

E – Eating

A tasty Roman...
There's more to Rome than pizza, but if you're visiting Italy you can't not try a slice. Forget the dry, tasteless pizzas bought from your local supermarket. These pizzas are perfection. You don't have to walk far before you come up across a small shop that sells pizzas and other tasty bites.

The most difficult decision you will have to make is between the different toppings. Why not have two...?! The next challenge is to resist eating your lunch before your day's even begun!

Saturday, 4 April 2015

D – Domus

The Domus Sessoriana
My most recent visit to Rome had been with the Ramblers. They had described the hotel as having ‘the most spectacular frontage’ of any hotel in their brochure. That’s not entirely true. The Domus Sessoriana has the most spectacular frontage of any hotel. It’s actually a converted monastery, although most of the building is still used for worship. In fact, the day before my arrival Pope Benedict XVI had attended a televised service there.

Staff are employed – as waiters, receptionists, cleaners etc. – and monks live and work in the remainder of the building. But that doesn’t detract from the hotel atmosphere, or the quality of the accommodation.

It's near enough to the city centre to walk to the Colosseum and the metro is only a few minutes away. If you're thinking of visiting Rome and need a hotel, this has be one to consider!

Friday, 3 April 2015

C – Colosseum

The Colosseum
Rome's Colosseum is synonymous with the city and it has to be one of the most visited locations.

But these buildings require immense care and 2014 brought to an end a restoration project that cost an estimated £21m.

Although it remained open for the duration, there was inevitably some disruption – especially for the photographers. Two thousand years of pollution had blackened the stonework – and damage caused by the vibration of the nearby metro also required attention. As necessary as all this work is, it is bitterly disappointing for visitors.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

B – Basilica

The Basilica di San Pietro
There’s much to see in the Basilica di San Pietro, and for a photographer – even an amateur like me – it’s a fascinating location.

The great height of the domes allows light to flood through the many windows – shafts cut through, drawing the eye upwards. Capturing those beams is almost too easy – the difficulty is in choosing which ones to photograph.

With all the beautiful painting and sculpture on display, why – you might wonder – did I focus on the light? I suspect that I was a victim of the domes’ architect (Michelangelo). Crepuscular rays – or God rays – are atmospheric optics that occur naturally as rays stream through gaps in clouds. Michelangelo had created the conditions to allow them to appear inside. Nothing here was built by chance – it’s all part of a great architectural plan.