On the drive from the Leonardo da Vinci international airport to the centre of Rome, a visitor will pass St Paul's Basilica, the only one of the four ancient major basilicas or papal basilicas (others being St John Lateran, St Mary Major, and St Peter's) that lies outside the walled city. Inside the Aurelian walls, built to protect Rome from barbarian invaders, lies a rich and centuries old culture that has continued to fascinate visitors from around the world.
Of hills, piazzas and fountains
The Capitol, the southern summit of the Capitoline Hill, was the symbolic centre of the Roman world and home to the city's three most important temples. Below the Capitol lies the Roman Forum, once the focus of political, social, legal and commercial life and the central area around which ancient Rome developed and the Colosseo, the centre of entertainment where gladiator fights used to sometimes last for days.
According to legend, Rome was founded in 753 BC by twin sons Romulus and Remus who were raised by a she-wolf. Overlooking the Forum is the Palantine Hill, where Romulus is said to have founded Rome and emperors lived for over 400 years. Julius Caesar ruled for a time as dictator, and his nephew Octavian became Rome's first emperor, assuming the title Augustus.
As one passes the Largo di Torre Argentina or Argentina Square where Caesar was assassinated, and the amazing Pantheon which houses the basilica of Santa Maria ad Martyres dedicated to St. Mary and all the Christian martyrs, the baroque architecture, the huge columns of marble brought from different continents especially Africa, the larger than life sculptures of gods and goddesses, it is not just a reminder of the skilled craftsmanship of the golden era of the Roman Empire but a cauldron of art and culture that has been restored and painstakingly kept alive.
A short walk from the Pantheon, you will find Piazza Navona, an oblong square with three fountains. In the centre is the Fountain of Four Rivers (Nile, Ganges, Danube and Rio del Platas) by 17th century sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The stadium was known as Circus Agonalis (competition arena), which then became ‘n'Agona’ and eventually Navona. In addition to a market, processions and spectacles were held here – including ‘naumachiae’ or mock naval battles when the stadium was flooded with water.
Another short walk and you reach the famed Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps, which were constructed in the 1720s. The steps lead to the Piazza di Spagna where to the left, you'll see the Keats Shelley Museum, an homage to the two poets, who spent their final years in Italy.
Nearby in the centre of Piazza del Popolo, site of the one of ancient Rome's northern gate you'll see an ancient Egyptian obelisk, brought to Rome in 10 BC by Emperor Augustus. The highlight of the piazza is the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo which was the setting for author Dan Brown's pre-Da Vinci Code novel, Angels and Demons.
A unique tourist stop is the La Bocca della Veritŕ or the Mouth of Truth, a marble sculpture of a man-like face, located in the portico of the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin opposite the Temple of Hercules on the banks of the river Tiber that flows through the city. It was believed that if one told a lie with one's hand in the mouth of the sculpture, it would be bitten off. The Mouth of Truth was made famous in the 1953 film Roman Holiday starring Katherine Hepburn and Gregory Peck.
A peep into the past
Rome is an archaeological delight and one can spend hours walking around ancient sites that have been restored and opened to the public. Vicus Caprarius or The City of Water is one such site just south of the Piazza di Trevi which was uncovered in 1999 during construction of the Cineteca Nazionale's Sala Alberto Sordi in the former Cinema Trevi. Archaeologists have excavated 4,300 square feet of ruins of what used to be a fourth century Roman mansion and a section of an aqueduct - the Aqua Virgo - that connects to the nearby Trevi Fountain. Another discovery on the outskirts of Rome is Ostia Antica, the ancient harbour city built on the banks of the Tiber. The ancient city is mentioned in the 2000 film Gladiator, when the protagonist Maximus (played by Russell Crowe) learns that his army is camped at Ostia and awaiting orders. Ostia also has a beautiful beach where the view of the Mediterranean Sea is scenic.
Inside the city, the Villa Borghese which houses the Galleria Borghese where we can find one of the most important collections of sculpture and paintings in the world including works by Bernini and Raphael. The Villa Borghese estate and gardens, a gift from Pope Paul V to his nephew Scipione Borghese in the early 1600s. The statue of his wife Pauline (Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister) has been in the villa since 1838 and is a breathtaking work of art.
A visit to Rome will not be complete without seeing the famed Roman baths. A recent archaeological find, is the Terme di Caracalla or the Baths of Caracalla named after the emperor Caracalla. Before leaving Rome, don't forget a walk on Via Veneto, home to the famous Café de Paris and Harry's Bar, immortalised in Federico Fellini's iconic film, La Dolce Vita.
By Steena Joy