herald

Thursday 20 September 2018

Rome wasn't built in a day (but it can be seen in three hours)

Whether it's a tight cruise stop, or an airport layover, you can get the most of our precious time. Mark Evans sees what Rome has to offer in an afternoon

cruise trips are like eating tapas – you get a taste of a place, but you take it in under time pressure, before you move on to the next tasty morsel.

But while it's better to have at least an overnight to take it in the sights and sensations of a city, you can tick the boxes in a couple of hours.

Take a recent whistlestop tour I took of Rome, with an eight-hour stop onboard MSC Splendida.

First up, official shore excursions can be expensive – and I'm not keen on seeing a city with coachloads of others, so DIY is the way to go.

Think it can't be done? Try this for size ...

ARRIVAL:

First point, Rome is nowhere near the sea – arriving in the nearest port town of Civitavecchia – but you've got the option of a train, a bus transfer, or making it your own way.

Don't even think about hiring a car – traffic and parking are nuts in the Eternal City and you need a special licence to travel within the historic city limits.

The town's train station is a shuttle transfer and walk away – and it's bedlam trying to get a ticket into Rome from the port.

If you're in a small group, you're in luck. Six of us chipped in and haggled with a driver to take us on an impromptu tour of the city.

Here a poco of Italian is a must. Our would-be driver wanted €400 for a round trip – we haggled him down to €240, €40 a head for a return journey and three hours of sightseeing.

THE SIGHTS

Forget what you've heard – even a treasure trove like the Italian capital is do-able in three hours, and it needn't cost the earth. And organising a last-gasp trip isn't a hassle as the main road from the port goes through Vatican City – our first stop.

The thousands queuing to visit St Peter's and the Vatican Museum quickly made up our minds to take a quick snap or two in front of St Peter's, buy a few souvenir Pope Francis lighters (a snip at €2) and walk to our next photo op stop – the Vatican castle.

Originally built as a mauseoleum for the Emperor Hadrian, the Castel Sant'Angelo was also a place of refuge for popes in later times, and even an execution site, where chopped-off heads were placed on the battlements.

You can find out more about its 1,300-year history on a tour; we gave it 10 minutes for photos outside.

Cross the Sant'Angelo bridge for fine views of the Tiber River, and our first pit stop in Bella Roma cafe, on Via de Panico. The area is stuffed with little restaurants and cafes, and it's far enough off the tourist trail to get a latte for €2.

Our eager driver picked us up for our next stop – the Trevi fountain and Pantheon.

My travelling companions weren't that taken by the Vatican "lot smaller than on TV"; "too crowded", and so on, and our next stop was even more of a letdown.

To me, the Pantheon is the highlight of Rome. Built in 125AD, it's one of the finest surviving Roman buildings - better still, it's small inside and free in.

Located in the beautiful Piazza della Rotunda, you can get a great view from the across the square in the outside table of the best-situated McDonald's in the world.

The rest of the guys thought it was boring, and were itching to move on to the Trevi fountain, less than 10 minutes walk away.

Finally, a hit. The baroque masterpiece, finally completed in the 18th Century, is far more interesting than the overrated Spanish Steps.

Though thronged with tourists, it's still a romantic emblem of the city. A word of warning; pictures get washed out because of the reflective surface, but local guys will take your picture for a tenner (we bargained them down to €7), and print it off with a mobile printer. Tacky, but worth it for a decent shot.

Our waiting driver shot us past the impressively tacky Altar of the Fatherland. The massive, Roman-style monument was completed in 1925 as a homage to Victor Emmanuel, the first king of the unified Italy.

It's OTT – like Liberace does Roman Empire, but the rest of them loved it. I told the driver to keep going.

At least they were impressed by the Colosseum – where I went tacky again and got my picture taken (for a tenner) with some scruffy-looking "centurions". Look when in Rome...

Even though it's covered in scaffolding, it's an impressive sight, and you should also visit the nearby Forum, the heart of Roman power through the centuries.

If we had the time, or inclination to spend €11 to get in, we would have paid the admission fee. Being cheap, we went in through the exit, which gives you a quick glimpse of the sights and a chance to see archaelogists digging up the latest treasures.

And our driver was waiting to whisk us back to the port, €240 lighter with a packed-in day.

What new things did we learn about Roman history? Nothing. But hey, we've got a treasure trove of tacky snaps.

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