Turns out our road did lead to Rome.
Driving into Italy's capital was surprisingly easy compared to other large European cities. We circled around the city from the north to the south towards our caravan park which was based by Rome's State park. We chose to stay at this location due to its walking distance to the city center (albeit a long walk but still 'walk-able').
Once we parked up and transformed Gary into our tiny home, we saw that our friends Gemma and Sean had also coincidentally just arrived in Rome with Gemma's mother Helen. We had tried to coordinate our travel plans with them earlier in our trip but hadn't been able to tee anything up. Now we were all in Rome at the same time, before, once again coincidentally, heading onward to the Amalfi coast. Great timing!
Now for a bit of context on our roman education. We were both brought up on Monty Python's Life of Brian and Carry on Cleo. Needless to say were quite excited to see what Rome actually looked like in the flesh, and the true history behind those who made it famous. We immediately began exploring the ruins in search of an actual centurion ;)
That afternoon we took the scenic route into the city before meeting up with the others for dinner. We walked around one of the impressive original walls of ancient Rome and then the past Pyramid of Caius Cestius to the Tiber river that runs through the center of the city. There is a beautiful walking path along the river that locals bike and run on, but the access is difficult. We had to climb over a small wall and down some ancient steps to access it.
We ended up finding a bunch of pop up bars along the river and found ourselves sitting in a very "authentic" Roman 'Tiki bar' sipping on "authentic" Italian beer and chips.
On route to dinner we walked past some infamous ruins and buildings, building up Dan's anticipation along the way. The Theatre of Marcellus is an amphitheater that predates the Colosseum and just up the hill is the Altar of the fatherland which was built to honor Italy's first King and WWI's soliders. Then the piece de resistance, as you turn the corner to head down Via dei Fori Imperiali, where the Colosseum and Ancient Roman Forum instantly grab your eye and imagination. But this was only a taster of Rome's ancient ruins for Dan as we rushed onward to meet Sean, Gemma and Helen at Il Girasole for dinner and a great catch up.
Sean and Gemma had visited Rome many times before, so Sean became our pseudo tour guide and took us for an evening walk to the Spanish steps and Trevi fountain (we've always been told to visit these spots at midnight to avoid the crowds. It seems everyone else has gotten the same message, as it was packed but none the less, still beautiful). Sean shared the history of these spots and tips for our following days' adventures. We finally said ciao and rolled into bed by 2am to the ambient sounds of a rock concert going on at the State park (not our smartest move as we had a 6am morning start).
Rome may not have been built in a day but we sure attempted to see it all in one. We had booked two tours on one day, with The Vatican tour in the morning followed by The Ancient Rome tour in the afternoon (we used #Iloverome). We don't usually book tours but being a 35 degree weekend in the middle of the high season, it was a great opportunity to use some vouchers we had. Bidi can still remember her previous Vatican trip being the longest line she had ever waited in and that's saying something as shes been to the Indiana Jones ride at LA Disney when it first opened. Paying for these guided tours meant we gained fast-track entry into all of the sites and were herded through by a tour guide. At approx €45 per person, it's definitely worth it if you haven't got much time in Rome, so you can spend more time seeing the city, rather than standing in line.
With a 8:30am start we met our chatty tour guides (too chatty for the morning) at Piazza del Risorgimento, outside the Vatican city. We were donned with a pink #IloveRome sticker and fluoro green headphones, before entering the smallest country in the world at 0.44 km². Side note; as we stated before it was a 35 degree day and to enter Vatican city you must have covered shoulders and knees. Not ideal but we were prepared, however it was surprising how many weren't... come on Americans! Although, it was entertaining to watch the hagglers try convince people that their cheap synthetic scarves were indeed 100% silk and a bargain at €5 (seemingly oblivious to the identical scarves signposted at €2 behind them).
We were shepherded past the never ending line of people, through security and into a courtyard to begin our history lesson for the day. The upside of these tours of course is the speedy access and the knowledgeable tour guide. The downside being that they don't have time to touch on everything and at times you will fell rushed through rooms. Our speedy route through Vatican city started with the Gallery of Maps (Dan's favourite) then on to the Gallery of Statues and Hall of Busts, followed by The four Raphael Rooms. Our guide keenly filled us in with the stories and politics behind these famous fresco's and works of art.
We then moved on to the Sistine Chapel. As you are not aloud to speak or take photos within the chapel our guide left us for 40 mins to check out Michelangelo's most famous work. The Chapel isn't large and as Bidi had visited before, she bee-lined straight to the chairs along the wall so we could stare comfortably up at the roof. It's impressive work for one man to have done all by himself. After 40 mins of listening to the security guards "whisper yell" (an art in its self) 'Senza Parlare, sssssshhhh.... No Speaking, ssssssshhhh... NO PHOTOS!', we were keen to move on. We went through a little door and then passed by St Peter's Holy door (which we weren't allowed through as it's only opened once every 25 years). We did luckily manage to time the slightly more regular hourly changing of the Swiss guard; one of the oldest military units in continuous operation since 1506.
Our tour finished up at the St Peters' Basilica; 'the largest church in the world'. It's history sounded a bit like a pissing contest among the religious: "We've got the biggest church", "My Chruch is bigger than your church"and "It's not how big your Church is, it's how you use it..." None the less it was a pretty impressive finishing for the tour, although they should have ended it here and not inside the strategically placed gift shop. We exited without rosary beads and finally spotted the famous chimney through which white smoke signals the election of a new pope.
Behaving like the mature adults we are, we spent several minutes jumping back and forth over the country boarder line. Italy... Vatican City... Italy... Vatican City... Italy...
We then said our goodbyes to the Pope; alas we were told he was away on his summer holiday as well. Our guess is the Bahamas.
Next we had a couple of hours to relax before our Ancient Rome tour began, so we headed to the rooftop bar Les Etoiles, that we had been recommended. Although incredibly overpriced it did have gorgeous views of the Vatican city and Rome's skyline. After spending a small fortune on their two cheapest beers we moved on to the Italian restaurant Calabascio for lunch (at this stage we just needed anywhere with air conditioning).
After quite literally stuffing ourselves with pasta and wine, we realised we needed to walk across the city pronto. Not a smart move in hindsight as Bidi keeled over, after gouging on a creamy Cabonara. But we powered through via the Pantheon and on to our next meeting point, the Arch of Constantine, to start our next three hour tour.
Once we had donned our familiar pink sticker's and bright blue headphones, we met our slightly more serious tour guide (who can blame him for not being enthusiastic about running weekend tours in that heat). Most importantly we had finally made it to the Colosseum, Dan's most anticipated ancient ruin. Fact: 4 million tourists visit this site a year, making it the world's 39th most popular tourist destination according to Wikipedia.
Our guide showed us around the ground and upper levels, unfortunately our tour didn't include underground chambers.... next time, Dan. We learnt that the world's first event tickets were created here, as they needed a way to efficiently direct 50,000 citizens into the amphitheater. The tickets were stone slabs with a roman numeral's etched out on them, representing the door you entered, and therefore greatly reducing bottlenecks upon entry. We were also enlightened that the Gladiator movie wasn't actually very factual (shock horror) and we learnt that it became a christian burial site after it went into disrepair.
At least the next part of the tour was only a short walk across the road; the excavated Roman forum. By this stage the entire tour group was struggling with the heat and the guide was updating us constantly on the proximity of the next water fountain. This ancient marketplace was once the most celebrated meeting place in the world. The excavations are incredible and make you wonder what else is hidden under the 'New Rome'.
Once our tour guide wrapped up, our group dissipated incredibly fast to the shade or their air conditioned hotel rooms. We headed to Baguetteria del Fico (a sandwhich/craft beer bar we had been recommended by Sean and Gemma) and put our feet up (and in Bidi's case head down literally for a cat nap till the sun set). Finally to finish the day we headed back to view the Colosseum lit up at night; our grand finale for our trip to Rome.
After catching the shakiest bus ride home (honestly we have no idea how this bus was still in one piece), we crashed immediately to the ambiant sound of rock music at some nearby concert. Luckily we were so exhausted from over 18 hours straight playing tourist, that it didn't matter and we were both asleep within minutes, snug as two bugs in a rug / van.
The next morning we would head back to the coast, and not just any coast, the beautiful Almafi Coast...
Bidi & Dan