I’ve never been to Italy, which was a surprise to me considering how much travelling I have done around Europe over the last 15 years so when an opportunity came up to Visit Rome with The Holiday Ninja, I jumped on the offer. I decided to take my son along with me, he is an inquisitive 10 year kid who loves history and general knowledge so I thought it would be a great educational holiday for the two of us alike. But this brought its own challenges that became apparent as the trip progressed. “Dil, Are you excited” was the question I was asked in the build up to the trip. The answer was a bemused “uuh yeah? I guess so…but I’m not sure what to expect”. You see, my knowledge on Roman history is questionable, the little I know is from Asterix and Obelix comics as a kid mixed with the 1959 film Ben-Hur starring Charlton Heston and my Italian is non existent. I feel like I studied parts of Roman history in School in South Africa but was amazed how little of it I held onto. So I was a little anxious to say the least.
Day One: Travel & Trevi Fountain We flew out of Dublin Airport Terminal 2, super early flight, 6am.. that terminal opens at 4am so it was fairly quiet and we were through security in about 5 minutes. Aer Lingus flight was great, managed to get some shut eye for most of the flight which I feel I have become very good at over the years. This was the first learning experience for me when I awoke to people around me enjoying tea and coffee and my son sitting there watching a movie we had downloaded for the flight. I travel a lot with work and I travel light, move fast and consume nothing but water on flights… but I forgot he was there and probably would have loved an in-flight snack because its all a novelty to him. My bad… noted. We arrived at Leonardo da Vinci–Fiumicino Airport, a coastal airport half an hour west of the Capital by car. From there we decided to hop on the train. The journey was quick and comfortable, kids under 12 travel free and a one way ticket was around €14.
Roma Termini is a large and busy Train station with a shopping mall, leaving through a huge opening into a small side road where you are immediately hit with a change of culture, the bustling road with cars and people and small souvenir shops create a buzz. We made our way to our hotel which was about 10min walk, assuming you know where you’re going… this was my first experience with Italian driving and rules of the road… which to be honest I feel, are more like guidelines. Crossing a zebra crossing is different here, you don’t wait, you approach, make eye contact with the vehicles and walk out confidently ensuring you own that road, some cars will stop and others will continue to drive over the crossing as you walk, sort of filtering along with you. At first this is crazy and super intimidating but as the trip went on, it made a lot more sense and it’s quite an efficient system. But thereare a few squeaky bum moments on your first attempts. Our Hotel, the Relais Santa Maria Maggiore was hidden away down a side road, the staff were very friendly and helpful and while we were a little early for our room key they allowed us to leave backpacks and checked us in. This was where I learnt about Romes City Tax on thing like hotels which was not included in our original room price so we had to pay this on arrival. The hotel itself was nestled tightly amongst the buildings and roads around the Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore, get used to this word ‘Basilica’ its effectively a large multi purpose Cathedral like building connected to the Catholic Church. You can walk into them and enjoy the sheer scale, beauty and attention to detail of the architecture, they are beautiful, quiet and peaceful, but remember to remove you hats and don’t use flash photography.
It was a Monday mid day and we hadn’t eaten since the airport, so we decided to do what any sane person would “when in Rome” and indulge ourselves immediately with a pizza. Only a few minutes walk from the hotel was our first stop. Pizzeria il Nipotino a small understated restaurant with a small doorway into a quaint room of about 12 tables dresses with check cloth table covers. The people were friendly, the food was delicious and the price was spot on. This set the approach for food and drinks from that point on, If you are in a popular area, walk a few roads back out of the way and you will find a small local independent Pizzeria or Cafe serving great food at great prices. The busy places near tourist attractions, are designed for tourist, they look welcoming and Authentic, we tried one out of interest and it was fine. The Pizzas were between €14-€20 where as the smaller local places were €8-€10 with better service and tastier food.
We then decided to take a walk over to Trevi Fountain, my wife had warned me about the crowds, we visited at 2pm, I was expecting chaos so I was pleasantly surprised to find the place fairly peaceful. Yes there was a crowd, but it was a decent size, the steps, fountain water and surrounding areas were easy to move around and there wasn’t a lot of noise. The afternoon light filled the area with warmth, it sparkled off the water creating interesting reflections and long shadows. We stood there for a while, people watching the groups of friends, families and couples standing around eating Gelato, throwing coins into the fountain and taking a crazy amount of photos. Before eventually wandering back toward the hotel. We grabbed our key and got set in our room. Day one we used their elevator which was more like a wardrobe in size, it was rickety and tight and felt like it was for moving laundry around… it was quite funny and disorientating… We used the stairs from that point on. It’s a quirky but simple hotel, grand spiral stone steps lead to very small, tight corridors that get smaller as you progress through them and eventually we found our room. It was small, a double bed and a small bathroom, with a skylight. It locks you away from the city, the noise and the vibe. It’s not the sort of place you want to spend too much time in, but it was clean, quiet and after a long day walking it was a comfortable place to rest the head. We walked down the road from the hotel for about 10 minutes and found a Pizza Pasta Joint where I tried some Italian Carbonara…. Strictly no cream!!! It was decent… but I prefer it with cream. But I also like Pineapple on my pizza… so what do I know.
The following days started the same way, with breakfast in the hotel. It’s simple, don’t expect much. Neither an English breakfast nor a Continental.
Sliced Ham and Cheese with toast and an array of sweet treats and pastries. Cappuccino is a morning drink, Its frowned upon after lunch because Italians believe that drinking the dairy in the afternoon is a not good for digestion. These are the same people who eat cheesy pizza and bowls of pasta at night before they go to sleep….so do what you want with that I guess. We stuck to the hotel breakfast because it was included and a novelty for my son.
Day two: Colosseum & Trastevere
This was the first of our attractions. The Colosseum. An entertainment arena where Gladiators would fight to the death, amongst other things. We approached it from the north arriving by foot at the top section of Colesseo Train Station, there’s a few ways to make it down to ground lever, we went down the steps through the station. Be wary, there are a lot of hecklers about, stopping people, asking if you have tickets, distracting you. It’s hard to know immediately who’s official and who’s chancing their arm. We booked tickets online with extra access to the floor. We arrived on time, didn’t queue at all, a brief security check and we were through, on foot, walking through columns and corridors of memories, history and stories.
Now Remember my knowledge of Roman history? Well I assumed the place would be huge, I had visions of Chariots and horses charging around the gravel grounds at speed. Don’t get me wrong, it was a big structure, it was old and it was very impressive but the actual arena itself, the ground area where the performance and battles would take place was surprisingly smaller than I thought. The whole place was quiet, very peaceful, people walking around but no one felt on top of you. We spent about 2 hours there just absorbing the atmosphere, stopping in different sections and just looking at the place imagining what it used to be like. If you like history, castles, architecture and stories this is an incredible visit.
We spent the rest of the morning wandering around the surrounding area of the Roman Forum, you can choose to purchase tickets for this and get inside the grounds, but I feel this is up to your enthusiasm and interest in the forum. We managed to walk around it and find enough access points from the roads and paths to get an idea of what it was like. We walked north west from the Colosseum along the main promenade, it was pretty cool, large roads, loads of space, surrounded by ruins. It was here I coined the term with my son “Rocks and Rubble”. Which I feel accurately summarised a lot of this historic sights in Rome. It’s very old, it’s definitely ruined. I guess because it s a working city I was imaging it all to be a little better kept, integrated, maybe more immersive, more grandeur. But it’s kinda just been left and the wider city has been developed around it.
We headed west crossing the River Tiber into the area of Trastevere. It’s a smaller more quaint part of the city with deep working class roots. It’s got a trendy, more hipster vibe and is what I would imagine smaller towns around Italy to be like. Cobbled roads wind through tight corridors of old orange and brown buildings with wooden shutters. The sounds of birds chirping and people chatting. Trees and plants growing from corners, flowers and bushes wind their way over walls with creeper plants hanging down over the lanes. A really authentic area with soul, character and an array of cafes, sandwich shops and bars. We spent a couple hours walking around looking at the buildings and shops. We stopped into Forte La Renella for some of the tastiest freshly baked crispy rolls with baked ham. Speaking Italian here would be handy, there is definitely less enthusiasm to embrace English in this area so just be friendly and ask how to pronounce things, if you try, they will meet you half way. I asked for a Pan au Chocolat…. I was swiftly corrected “no…saccottino” I laughed and replied “yeah but its a just a shiny Pan Au Chocolate, which is French, every where in the world my man” he was not impressed with that answer. We took our food, paid the fella and took a seat.
The rest of the Afternoon was spent kicking back with a Gelato wandering the back lanes before finding a very under assuming small Craft beer bar. The walls were grubby and laden with graffiti tags, two rickety tables and umbrellas sat outside, one table marked clearly with a strip of dirty masking tape and the words “Locals Only”. Then I notice a pair of fellas in Carhart sweaters, half of them inside and hanging half out the door smoking a rollie… they were just about ticking the box of not smoking indoors. They looked cool, I gave them the downward nod, the one a bloke does passing another bloke that they don’t know… we save the upward nod for people we know and intend on stopping to chat to. Then I noticed the tiny sign that read “Tap List”. I was sold. Afternoon pint of a local hoppy IPA is exactly what I needed. Stuck my head in… ordered a beer. “Can I also get a coke for the little guy please?” I asked …. “We don’t do soft drinks but you can go to the mini market down the road” she replied. Classic… I walked out with a pint in hand…and just wandered down this small cobbled road with it to the mini market before returning with a can of coke, we sat at the guest table haha. We headed back to the hotel area, along the side of the Roman Forum , the late afternoon sun was low and warm, sneaking through the gaps between buildings lifting up the ruins with a orange/pink glow and creating long shadows on the roads as people crossed, perfect time for photos so we took our time and ended the evening in another local Pizzeria indulging ourselves in crispy cheesy goodness.
Travelling with a child is a different experience. It immediately rules out the “night life” element of a trip but it does allow you to head back to the hotel room guilt free and stick on Netflix. I bought a couple beers and snacks for us from the mini Market and we just chilled each evening.
Day Three: The Vatican City & Sistine Chapel
Beep Beep Beep - we’re up - showered - weird pastry breakfast and a cappuccino and we’re out the door again this time we decided to get a taxi… we were heading to the Vatican City for a 9:30am tour of the museums and it’s an hour jaunt on foot. The taxi drive was interesting… to be on the other side of the guidelines was eye opening. They drive where ever they want, if there are 3 lanes, they fit 5 cars side by side, the hoot to let you know they are there, hoot to pass, hoot when passing, hoot once they have passed, hoot to let you go in front and hoot to tell someone they are in the way… basically hooting means everything and nothing at the same time.
So, the Vatican City is a stand alone city-state, it’s the smallest State in the world both in size and population and became independent of Italy in 1929. It is the head of the Catholic Church and is ruled by the pope. The Vatican is surrounded by huge walls with limited access points, it is free to enter the city but certain parts require an admission fee. We arrived and entered the Vatican museums, admission fee required and absolutely worth it. It feels like a glorified Catholic Church/museum combination which is exactly what it is. The place is huge, the money in this building is incredible. Grand staircases of marble are joined with long corridors dressed with tapestry, sculptures and artworks collected by the Catholic Church since the 16th Century. It was nice and peaceful, no flash photography but freedom to walk and take photos of your visit. The sculptures were incredible but to be honest they all become a blur after a while because there are just so many to see. As you dander through the corridors you move through rooms and halls graced from floor to ceiling in artwork, incredible decorative paintings from a wealth of talent artists including Raphael and Michelangelo. Probably the most famous is the Sistine Chapel, there are signs everywhere directing you toward it, the whole visit seems like a journey to the Sistine. Do not let that distract you from the amazing works on route each more grand than the previous including the Gallery Of Tapestries, a huge corridor around 250m long lined wall to wall with tapestry including the work of Raphael. Get up close and appreciate the detail because it is something special. Eventually we turn a corner to find ourselves at the bottom of a staircase with a bright curved ceiling covered in paintings and signs that say “No Photography”… we climbed the stairs, turn a few more corners and enter the Sistine Chapel. Now… this was quite an experience. My knowledge of the Sistine is “A ceiling painted by Michelangelo with the Creation of Adam…those two fel
las touching fingers” . Well it’s a little bit more than that. The walls are lined with incredible paintings showing the story of Moses, Baptism of Christ amongst other things and the walls were created by Renaissance painters in the 1400’s the entire ceiling is covered in artworks by Michelangelo and to my surprise the Creation Of Adam plays a very small part in this absolute masterpiece. It really needs to be seen to be appreciated in all its glory. There are no photos allowed in the chapel… this is not a law… just a rule…that was created by the Vatican to try control imagery of the room and I guess a way of them making money from it. Which was lucky because my camera accidentally fired a photo while I was holding it in my lap which almost perfectly framed the room from the back corner… oops.
After a few hours indoors we took a stroll out into the museum gardens, a peaceful walled garden with benches and water fountains, we kicked back with a drink for an hour and enjoyed the serenity and sunshine. We left the museums and walked round to see the rest of the Vatican City… we entered St Peters Square, which was ironically a huge circle. Basically just a huge outdoor area that I imagine is used for ceremonial purposes. There wasn’t much happening but it we took a couple hours to walk around the grounds before making our way back across town toward the Roman forum. The sun was setting and the vibe was really chill so we pulled in to a more touristy pizzeria on the main promenade. It was against out rule but we were lured in by the ambiance. Outdoor seating with checked table cloths, hot fire burners blazing and people enjoying food and drinks with a beautiful view of the sunset behind the forum. The food and service were average, not bad, just not special. But the vibe was great. After dinner we took a nice slow stroll back through the city stopping at the Colosseum, I wanted to see what it was like at night and it was completely worth it. The openings are lit up with a soft orange light that lift the structure out from the night sky. It was around 7:30pm so there were still people walking around enjoying the sight. Highly recommend checking it out at night especially for photos.
Day Four: Bus Rides & Hindsight
The final day, we had a bit of lie in, then breakfast and check out. After 3 full days of walking around 20k steps per day we decided to start the day the lazy way and hop on an open top bus tour. This was great, in hindsight I would do this on day one, it gives you a really clear understanding of the various things to see, will allow you to decided what you want to visit and generally helps you get your bearings. We hopped on at the main Roma Termini and took it 2 thirds of the way round before hopping off north of Trevi Fountain at the Spanish Steps. This was pretty cool offering up some nice views out over the city.
We took a dander south west past the Pantheon and back toward the Plaza Novona on the hunt for one last Pizza and wow did we find a spot worth checking out. Hidden down a back road was a place called Ponte e Parione, it had good reviews on Trip Advisor so we stuck our head in. Welcomed immediately by friendly staff and a lovely outdoor atmosphere. We took a seat and had a lovely chat with the staff and learnt a bit about the city. The pizza was hands down the best we had, a traditional wood fire pizza oven makes all the difference. We left with a smile and full bellies and found our way back to the bus stop and hopped on for the rest of the trip back to the Roma Termini.
Now I glossed over one thing… toilet breaks. My goodness there were a lot of toilet breaks on the final day and I learnt that there are no public toilets anywhere! Keep that in mind especially when travelling with children. Trying to explain to my son that he had to be more conscious about toilets when we were in restaurants and museum was like talking to a wall. It resulted in some last min panics and dancing on the spot. My tip here is find a fancy hotel and use the kid as an excuse “could this little guy please use your toilet?” Then tut at them . Worked every time, even when it was me that needed the toilet haha.
After 4 fun days filled with pizza, gelato and loads of walking our short break had come to an end. We made it back to translation and hopped on the Leonardo Express to the airport for another easy breezy airport and plane experience back to Dublin.
In Conclusion: Rocks & Rubble worth the trouble I enjoyed Rome, it was an interesting city, perfect for those who like to explore by foot. It’s a gritty grubby city, more run down than I imagined it would be. Its all very walkable so don’t feel you need to use public transport or taxis but they are there if you need them. The Internet is probably the biggest issue we had, there was no signal at all for about 40% of the trip so download your maps and save your locations in a note on your phone incase you need to get a taxi and have no signal. Wifi in most cafes and restaurants was average at best. Not a big deal… but super irritating if you are using maps and trip advisor and good while you walk. If you are interested in Roman History you will have a ball, if you just like general history and enjoy a city walk it’s also going to be great. I imagine in season it’s going to be very busy. The food and drinks were great at every place we stopped and the people were friendly. Everywhere took card and most places spoke or understood English. I think being there in February was a plus because there were very little crowds and no queues for anything. Apparently Jan/Feb are the low season, it starts getting busy from March onward. If you’re visiting this time of year, bring warm shoes or walking boots, and wear layers, there is not a lot of rain, nor wind and the layers allow you to adapt to the subtle changes as you walk in and out of the sunlight throughout the day.
This whole trip was a partnership with The Holiday Ninja, a one-step shop for holidays from Northern Ireland. Holiday Ninja shares the best of the best holiday offers for NI holiday-makers, all supplied and booked through local travel companies”
Here's a list of some places to try for
food & drinks if you are in the area: Ristorante Pizzeria il Nipotino - PIZZA & PASTA Via di San Martino ai Monti 43
Ponte e Parione - PIZZA & PASTA
Via di Santa Maria dell'Anima 62
Pizzeria Rustica Italia - PIZZA & PASTA
Corso d'Italia 103
Pasticceria Regoli - COFFEE & PASTRIES
Via dello Statuto 60
Donkey Punch - SANDWICHES
Trastevere Via della Scala 33
Forno La Renella - SANDWICHES
Via del Moro 15
Gelateria Frigidarium - GELATO
Via del Governo Vecchio 112
Gelateria Glauco - GELATO
Via Panisperna 245
Cafe Mameli - CRAFT BEER
Via Benedetta 25