Travel review: Rome - the Eternal City

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Some 15 years after first visiting Rome, Adam Jacot de Boinod beats a path back to the Eternal City fulfilling that old Trevi Fountain legend.

“Turn your back to the Trevi Fountain, toss a coin over your left shoulder and make a wish…” So the custom has it and 15 years later my guarantee of a return to Rome finally happened.

Leaving the airport, the taxi driver just happened to mention, on passing the Santa Maria Maggiore church, that the Pope was due to hold mass there that very evening.

I queued outside amongst a surprisingly intimate crowd. It was cold but I clung on nonetheless to the outside possibility that he would appear.

There was a good two hours before any chance of that which allowed me to watch the Romans at play. All costumes, drama and officialdom. Security men brimming with self-importance deciding at a whim the fate of the nuns entreating to be admitted, while ticket-wielding couples strode with casual aplomb through the melee.

“Papa” eventually appeared and the darkness was lit spiritually by his white mitre and in an earthly way by the many mobiles snapping away. But the sense of holiness prevailed. It was just so special to have witnessed his presence and sensed his aura. A true preparation for my visit the next day to St Peter’s, the vast and humbling spectacle that reflects its commanding position at the epicentre of Catholicism.

No matter if you are told otherwise, you have to join the queue and it was lengthy but where better than amongst the glorious colonnades and before the cathedral’s facade. Inside was sheer heaven, all magnificence and scale, bedecked with glorious detail.

I was drawn in particular to the 
amazing chart of the papal succession going right back to St Peter himself. It was harder, however, to conjure up the divine essence held within the conclave of the Sistine Chapel. It was recently re-coloured to mixed criticism and is swamped by 
such hordes that the authorities ironically feel obliged to bellow out requests for silence.

Catholicism is only one of the four elements of the heady mix that Rome boasts. Another is the Ancient Roman Empire that I chose to sense, not as most do in the Forum, but by walking on a Sunday afternoon along the Via Appia Antica. It’s the old, dead-straight road leaving the city.

Every cobble, while hard to traverse, evoked the vital historical conduit to the empire as the walk led into countryside and many miles beyond.

And then there’s the High Renaissance. There’s a visual feast awaiting one behind virtually every corner with architecture, sculpture and painting.

The Baroque facades are arresting in their extravagance. The thread of Bernini’s sensitivity and grace leads from the altar in St Peter’s to the folds in the skin of the Rape of Lucretia in the Galleria Borghese to the even more touching Ecstasy in Santa Maria Vittoria. What an amazing image.

And finally, the modern day Romans who are clearly on show as they play out their daily dramas.

Exuberant, bold and egoistic, be it at leisure on hired Segways, or as immaculately-dressed policemen delivering instructions, or as shopkeepers with their arms raised high with exaggerated gesticulation.

The ego has to be acknowledged. The uniform helps to get them into character. Any simple procedure would negate the drama. A flat refusal is really an invitation to a negotiation.

Take the ticketing process at the Vatican Museum where endless paperwork is required and authorisation sought. Leap years behind the swipe system of a mobile – there is even a “line to skip the line” process that I strongly recommend (at only an additional €9).

I was well looked after at two civilised hotels perfectly positioned amongst the top designers’ shopping district below the Spanish Steps.

The Crossing Condotti is an intimate, personal and discreet boutique hotel covering the basic mod cons while the Hotel d’Inghilterra is an old-style hotel that has welcomed legendary Hollywood 
guests such as Gregory Peck and Elizabeth Taylor.

I ate well at Time, the in-house all-hours restaurant at Jumeirah Hotel, which offered the best of Roman cuisine including delicious olives, pastas and ice creams.

I also enjoyed snacking at Ginger, a modern, lean and clean cuisine for the health-conscious.

On the final evening I threw another coin into the fountain. Let’s hope I won’t wait 15 more years before my return to the Eternal City will once again be topped by the white mitre.

Santa on the beach.

Travel: Escape the mayhem and enjoy warmer climates during Christmas period