So, is it possible for a family to ‘do’ Rome in 48 hours? Well, yes, I think you can and after our own non-stop weekend, here are my suggestions – some typically touristy and some slightly different – for a flying visit to this fabulous city, that will keep both adults and children entranced.
Our first stop, like most visitors, was to the Colosseum and it was easy to walk down from Janiculum Hill where we were staying, through the maze of narrow streets in the Travestere, across the Tiber and into the more touristy areas. The Colosseum is magnificent and has to be visited, but make sure that you book online to avoid excessive prices from tour organisations. All the Tribe were equally awestruck by the scale of the arena and by the utterly gruesome events that took place there. Its architecture and engineering is extraordinary – it was designed in AD72 and completed in AD80.
Its design is oval with a multitude of arches and stairways, spread across an area of 6 acres and could hold up to 80,000 people. Because of its design, it could empty in an organised way, within a very short time. During the inaugural games (lasting 100 days) in AD80, 9000 animals were killed, some to the point of extinction. We weren’t able to get tickets for the hypogeum tour showing the subterranean network of tunnels, animal pens and mechanical devices, but it gives us an excuse for a return trip. It remains the largest amphitheatre in the world.
Largo di Torre Argentina (Cat Sanctuary)
The Torre Argentina was the impressive home of Johannes Burkard, the papal Master of Ceremonies from Strasbourg (Argentina in Latin), who became famous (and wealthy) due to the very personal diary he kept of four Popes, in particular Pope Alexander VI Borgia. The square was grassed over until 1926 when excavations began. What was found was part of the Curia of the Theatre of Pompey were the Senate often met. In 2012, archeologists believe that they discovered the steps where, on 15 March 44BC, Julius Caesar was stabbed to death.
This grisly story sparks intense interest from the Tribe, but when they see all the cats in the ruins, they are entranced and we stop every time we walk past over the weekend. Over the decades, the cats of Rome have made this place their sanctuary and with help from a team of volunteers from all over the world, there are now strict regulations for the cats with inoculations and sterilisation. It is bizarre but the Tribe loved it!
The Midday Gun
The particularly loud bang of a canon, heard across Rome, signals lunch. Just before noon, three soldiers on the Janiculum Hill pull out an old howitzer, load it and then one soldier counts backwards and the canon is fired at noon by remote control. This is the Midday Gun. It made all of us jump as we were enjoying the magnificent view over Rome. The ceremony was introduced on 1 December 1847 by Pope Pius IX who was frustrated by the city clocks all showing different times. He felt that a single loud shot was the way to establish a reference point. Initially the canon was located at the Castel Sant’Angelo but in 1903 it was moved to a hill in the north-west, but from there it couldn’t be heard across the city. So, in 1904 it was moved to its present location. It was inactive during WWII, but on 21 April 1959 (Rome’s birthday) the ritual was resumed. A trip up the Janiculum Hill is definitely worth it as you escape the crowds and there’s plenty of space for children to run around – if you’re organised, it’s probably a great place for a picnic too!
There’s also an old fashioned puppet theatre on Piazzale Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Teatro di Pulcinella, with free puppet shows at the weekend. We all enjoyed looking at the exquisite puppets.
Rome’s Drinking Water
Since the time of Rome’s Emperors, Rome has been fed with water from the mountains via its aqueducts, providing the city’s population with fresh drinking water. Even today, everyone can fill up their water bottles throughout the city. Known s ‘Nasoni’ (big noses), there is a knack to drinking from these water fountains – as we discovered! We watched and copied; block the main spout and water then shoots out of a smaller hole at the top. You do get a bit wet, but its perfect for a refreshing, free, pick-you-up and makes everyone laugh! I guess that practice does make perfect.
Whether you’re religious or not, I think that the thought of seeing Jesus’ footprints would spark a little interest in even the most cynical of adults. We took the number 118 bus from the centre of Rome outside of the city walls along the ancient Via Appia Antica to the Basilica of Saint Sebastian. The Via Appia Antica is a 300 mile long Roman road. Its construction began in 312 BC connecting the Circus Maximus to the southern port, Brindisi, on the Adriatic coast. It was Rome’s first main road and primarily used to take soldiers and military supplies to conquer southern Italy. It is extraordinary to think how many have travelled along this road. It is very narrow (the bus just about gets through!) – exactly the right width to allow two chariots to pass each other.
We get off at the Basilica of San Sebastiano – part of the Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome, a place for pilgrims worldwide to visit. The church is supposed to be where the remains of Saint Peter and Saint Paul were taken during the persecutions of Christians. As we walk around the church we find a stone slab imprinted with THE footprints! Wow!
According to Christian legend, as Peter was walking away from Rome along the Via Appia (having escaped crucifixion as the Emperor Nero is crucifying and burning alive all Christians in Rome), he has a vision of Jesus. Peter asks Jesus, ‘Quo vadis domine?’ (‘Where are you going, Lord?’. Jesus replies, ‘Romam eo iterum crucifigi’ (I am going to Rome to be crucified again). Peter then turns around and follows Jesus back to Rome where he is subsequently arrested and executed. The footprints are supposed to have been taken from this time. Whether they’re real or not doesn’t really matter as we are all impressed and just seeing the footprints leads to some great discussions covering religion and history, particularly as we just happen to visit the church at the same time as a wedding is taking place – all quite bizarre.
Rome has a vast number of subterranean networks (and more are still being found today) and it is definitely worthwhile visiting one. In Roman times, no one was allowed to be buried within the city walls; Romans tended to cremate their dead while Christians had burials. Because of this the Via Appia became lined with tombs, burial monuments and catacombs. The Basilica of San Sebastiano just happens to have an impressive array of creepy, narrow, dark tunnels descending an astonishing four levels below the church. Perfect to escape the heat on a hot day or to wake up some sleepy children! The catacombs have been used for both pagan and Christian tombs and it is fascinating and pretty spooky seeing how many tombs there are. There are some incredibly clear early Christian symbols such as fish (Christ), an anchor (hope) and a dove with an olive branch (divine peace) – the imagery hasn’t changed over the centuries. Towards the end of the visit we see some astonishing ancient graffiti dedicated to Saint Peter and Saint Paul. For some reason, these catacombs are not particularly busy so definitely worthwhile if you’re visiting with children and it was fascinating for all of us.
Circus of Maxentius
Walking along the Via Appia from the Basilica of San Sebastiano you come across the Circus of Maxentius. It is one of the best preserved chariot racing course known as a circus. There are also the remains of a villa lived in by the Emperor Maxentius until he was overthrown by Constantine Augustus.
There’s plenty of space for children to run around and you can really get a sense of how huge the arena of the races was. Get the children running around it and they’ll sleep on the bus ride back into Rome!
There’s also the Tomb of Romulus here – Romulus being Maxentius’ son who died prematurely in 309 AD. It is an astonishing building obscured by a 19th Century farmhouse. Recently restored, it only reopened in 2014. The whole place is interesting and unusually for Rome, we were the only people there during our visit.
Descending a few steps into the huge space of the tomb gave me the real heebie jeebies and I couldn’t stay there on my own … Worth a visit and it added to our ever increasing understanding of the extraordinary world of Ancient Rome.
Street Art of Rome
Street art or graffiti, the Tribe loved it, particularly the Eldest. Worth enjoying it I think.
We walked past the Spanish Steps which we could barely see for the number of people on them so I wondered if there was any chance of getting to the Trevi Fountain where legend has it that if you throw a coin into the fountain, it guarantees a return to Rome. We found the fountain tucked away on probably the smallest piazza in Rome, but despite a vast number of tourists, we managed to squeeze our way in to the tier of steps in front of the fountain and throw our coins.
The Tribe loved it and it is a beautiful fountain of Tritons leading two sea horses pulling Neptune’s chariot; the changing mood of the sea is shown in the sea horses, one being wild and one calm. The fountain is built into the wall of the Palazzo Poli. Great fun and definitely worth waiting for a spot to throw a coin.
The Tribe were totting up the amount of money the fountain must make a year – over €3,000 is supposedly thrown in daily …
Ridiculous as it sounds, we sort of stumbled on the Pantheon as we walked through the maze of streets back towards the Tiber. A busker was singing opera and suddenly we were opposite the columned front of the Pantheon. With this traditional front, nothing prepared us for the inside. Walking in, despite the crowds of people, it is enormous and your attention automatically gets drawn upwards to the extraordinarily magnificent cupola and right at the top, the oculus – a 9 metre round hole – allowing light to fill the space below or rainwater to cascade down onto the floor only to disappear into the 22 almost invisible holes.
Built by the Emperor Hadrian between 118 and 125 AD, it has been a place of worship for pagans and Christians – today it is a church. The word ‘pantheon’ in Greek means ‘honour all gods’. It is the best preserved Ancient Roman building and it is still the largest unsupported dome in the world; it is 142 foot diameter and the distance from the floor to the top of the dome is equal to its diameter. Michelangelo said of the Pantheon that it looks more like the work of angels, not humans. We agree…
St Peter’s Square, Vatican City
We weren’t planning on visiting Vatican City as we had heard from friends that it was unbelievably busy even by Rome standards and there were queues for everything, but we thought that we’d attempt to walk around the outside of it.
Well, we decided to go via a car park that ended up in the Gianicolo Terminal and by some slightly Dan Brownesque bizarre portal, we found ourselves at the edge of St Peter’s Square.
Another jaw dropping moment; this Rome weekend seemed to produce rather a lot of them. We wandered around the square admiring the incredible space and phenomenal 284 marble colonnades surrounding the square and checked out the most unusual uniform of the Swiss Guards (each ceremonial costume is made up of 154 pieces of fabric!).
It was heaving with tourists so visiting the Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s was not on the cards for this visit, but if you can get there via the Gianicolo Terminal, it’s worth it just for that! The Tribe thought it was very portal like and utterly fitting given our location!
I haven’t mentioned any places to eat because there are cafes, restaurants and bars on every corner – ice creams are easy to find and always make a tired child perk up! We walked over 12 miles on our last day and the Littlest, who’s still only 5, was happy and still awake when we caught our flight home at 11pm! We all found Rome an utterly compelling city and visiting with the Tribe was a real privilege. So much that we saw was so thought provoking; we discussed, argued and laughed over what we saw and covered history, geography, religion, maths and Latin! We will be back for maybe a slightly longer Roman Holiday, but 48 hours gave us an incredible insight into Rome.
www.coopculture.it (Colosseum tickets)
www.romancats.com (Cat Sanctuary at Largo di Torre Argentina)
www.catacombe.org (Catacombs of San Sebastiano)
www.villadimassenzio.it (Circus of Maxentius and Tomb of Romulus)
www.trevifountain.net (Trevi Fountain)
www.vatican.va (Vatican City)
www.gianicolo.it (getting to St Peter’s Square via Gianicolo Terminal – worth it just for the utter bizarreness of it!)