A Tour of Rome, 1980
It is a scorching July day in Rome in 1980. The dry heat takes its toll on the group, eyes deflecting to water bottle vendors in close proximity. My Mum, however, raised in land-encased regions of Northern India, remains unfazed by such heat and so she sits solo on the Spanish Steps at Plaza Espana, the afternoon blaze above her, in quiet amazement of the ancient city she has found herself in.
Armed with his Pentax armoury, my Dad shuffles around his lenses and equipment, rummaging between the wide angles and the zoom to determine which would be most suited for this quintessential Rome moment. International leisure travel has always been for the elite, the aristocracy, the icons of the Bollywood world. That they have found themselves on holiday in continental Europe is a blessing they embrace tightly, each landmark an achievement, each step they take a privilege in its own right.
Theirs was a generation when it was on trend to smile at the camera and not away from it. With one flash and the sound of the timeless “cheeeese,” she smiles, the moment crystallised in time, the misty mauve glaze of their Italian snaps, nowadays reborn a vintage filter.
Nearly forty years later, I copy my Mum’s pose. It is me this time, sitting on the Spanish Steps, much less stoic in the heat than she had been. “Photo, photo” she yelps as a gap emerges between the masses and this time, it is Mum behind the camera, the “camera” now a telephone. We swap places and my parents sit side by side once again, a little older, a little wiser but no less appreciative for the experience than they had been first time around.
Navigating a city like Rome in 32°C heat, however, is no easy feat; even more so when faced with the constraints of a 3 day time frame and a range of varying ages and abilities. I can pretend to be an intrepid, hardy explorer all I like but the candid truth is, sometimes I just want to be in an air-conditioned vehicle, slurping on gelato and pressing pause on the 20K steps a day. On any family holiday (or any holiday for that matter,) Pumpkin is usually our human compass, in the depths of an unfamiliar city yet leaping from A to B as if he has inhabited those streets all his life. But after nearly ten days away and weighed down by the weight of the European heat wave, even his inclination to ferry us around wore thin.
A Car and Walking Tour of Rome
Fortunately, our sluggish first world struggles with the heat wouldn’t prove to be a hindrance in our quest to explore the Italian capital, as we took it upon ourselves to book a Rome Driving Tour to help us learn more about our surroundings. When I last explored Rome a decade ago, I was working my first serious job, I earned a pittance and budget was very much at the forefront of all travel-related conversations. A guided tour, let alone a private one, was not something I could have considered back then. As we whizzed around the city, ticking off our landmarks, the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Roman Forum, I had made a mental note to return home and open up the Lonely Planet, hit the Google searches and to educate myself about the history behind the monuments.
I never did do it and with that, I returned home from Rome a decade ago with a sun-kissed glow to my skin, an album full of snaps but no in-depth insights into the significance of what I had seen.
It was a mistake I made in my youth but this time around, I was determined to rectify that and Maura, our delightful local Rome enthusiast and guide for the evening was enlisted to help me to do just that. We met her late afternoon, which may seem an unusual time of day to start a walking and driving tour but if you experience a June afternoon in Rome, you will understand why this is one of the most sensible decisions they could have made. Maura wasted no time in impressing us with her warm personality, her assurance that she could accommodate this tour to our needs and preferences and best of all, with her dazzling introduction to Rome, as we stepped inside the interiors of the Pantheon.
The queue had looked painfully slow but she urged us to stay patient, reassuring us it would move quickly. It seemed doubtful to four cynics from London but she knew her city and within ten minutes, we were inside – the Pantheon was just as I had remembered it, flawlessly precise, pastel-tone and flush with light flooding in from the flawless ceiling orb above us.
Sensibly, before we carried on, she suggested a couple of top-notch gelaterias in the vicinity so we could walk around Rome, cone in hand, to keep us cool. The recommendations were like gold dust since in the heart of old Rome, it feels as if every 2nd building sells gelato, making it hard to distinguish the authentic gems from the tourist traps.
Of course, Maura wasn’t to know that a dessert fiend like myself had already had my gelato fix for the day before we had even met and so we walked on in the direction of the Piazza Navona. It was here that we came to learn that behind the ornate architectural detail of Bernini’s Fountain of Four Rivers and Borromini’s Plaazzo Pamphilli lay a tale of rivalry between these two great artists, at least if legend is to be believed.
With over 900 churches in Rome alone and more than 2000 fountains, the novelty to pose in front of every fountain and statue soon wore off but at the Trevi Fountain, we succumbed to the spell of the place. Thousands swarmed around us and our naive belief that it may have been less crowded by day than it had been the previous night was unfounded. I sacrificed making a wish in order to listen to the detail of the sculptures that Maura pointed out ahead of us, whilst Mum elbowed her way through the crowds to cast a wish on all our behalves.
Perhaps Mum used her precious Trevi fountain coin wish to send us all towards Mussolini’s balcony but that was where we found ourselves next, standing beneath the Piazza Venezia balcony, from which Mussolini had delivered so many of his most influential speeches.
Escaping the Heat
After a flurry of activity on foot, we sought comfort in the sublime cool interiors of the car, more thankful than ever to be passengers and not drivers – if you think London traffic is bad, you ain’t seen nothing yet! With some of our group less keen on steep staircases than others, the benefit of having a car and a guide took the pressure off and meant that no one felt coerced into walk beyond their capabilities, which proved to be a huge advantage in Rome’s June heat.
The Roman Guy promises that this tour will feature some hidden gems and so when Maura told us she had a few “surprises” planned for us, I genuinely just thought she was going to throw us a few top tips for where to grab the best rosemary foccacia and which coffee granita trumps all others.
Turns out she was willing to part with those particular pearls of wisdom without any shadow of a doubt but the surprises she had up her sleeve were far more intriguing. “I will show you some beautiful viewpoints over the city, including one that is so quiet and peaceful” she proclaimed. Big words for a bustling city in one of the most crowded weeks of the year (our visit coincided with the Festival of St Peter and St Paul, one of the most crowded weeks of the year in Rome.)
But once again, she delivered on her words as we found ourselves in an unfamiliar park that none of us had ever discovered on our previous visits. It was the oasis of still we had all longed for in the city with no one else on the terrace with us aside from a sprinkling of locals and half a dozen other tourists.
Well, almost no one – that was until 3 grooms emerged with their 3 brides across 3 weddings. Oh – and one baby being held in the arms of a bride and groom.
“And how does the Catholic faith feel about that,” Pumpkin cheekily asked, the rest of us covering our mouths aghast at his boundary-crossing whilst the guide laughed in hysterics at his controversial joke, reassuring him that times had moved on :D.
With wedding season clearly in full swing, we asked Maura whether it was possible for members of the public to marry in some of Rome’s iconic churches and cathedrals. She informed us that even for those that permitted it, the waiting list could be years long, meaning that savvy singletons who are feeling optimistic and confident might as well get themselves on the list nice and early and focus on the smaller details (like finding a life partner) later! (Travel hack – when sightseeing in Rome, always keep a scarf or shawl in your handbag, as shoulders and/or knees often need to be kept covered.)
A sneak peek inside the church adjacent to the park gave us a glimpse into a wedding sound check – holiday gold for a wedding-lover like myself. As the string quartet rehearsed Pachelbel’s Canon, all the memories from my own big day rushed back, as I walked down the aisle to the same melody all those years ago, sporting a gold-bejewelled ethnic twist on a classic ivory wedding dress.
And in the most bizarre of coincidences, after talking weddings, watching wedding shoots and reminiscing about weddings during the afternoon, we ended our walking and driving tour of Rome at the same Spanish Steps where Mum and Dad had begun their own tale in Rome all those years ago, a few years after their own wedding.
And who should be accompanying us just as we arrived? None other than 4 brides on a professional wedding shoot! There must have been something in the water that day…
Maura waved goodbye to us there but not before insisting on helping us get some group photographs of all four of us, as she had done all afternoon; and not before she very strategically left my Mum and I a stone’s throw away from one of the best shopping streets in Rome, much to the dismay of our husbands. Guided tours aren’t for everyone but in a city with the cultural and historical significance of Rome, it can make such a difference and we all agreed it was the highlight of our 3 days in Rome.
Have you been to Rome? What were your highlights?
Disclaimer: We were guests of The Roman Guy during this tour. All opinions, gelatos and wedding-crashing tendencies remain very much my own.