We knew Rome would be hot in July, but even the Romans were complaining that temperatures were higher than usual. The crowds were at their peak too, but still we were spellbound, following in the footsteps of popes, emperors and gladiators in the Eternal City.
A piazza to call home
Our home base at the Hotel Residenza in Farnese near Campo de' Fiori was a perfect location. It was walking distance to most of the main sites, but tucked away on a quiet block conducive to sound sleeps. It had the crucial-in-summer air conditioning, comfortable character-filled rooms and a charming bar area with a big screen tv. The staff laid out a hearty included breakfast each morning featuring cold meats, cheeses, eggs, yogurt, fruit, pastries and more.
Campo de' Fiori has a lively, bohemian atmosphere, with a market in the mornings and a restaurant scene in the evenings. It has a history too; a rather violent one in fact. On one corner stands what remains of the Theatre of Pompey, where Julius Ceasar was assassinated. And in the centre of the piazza is a sculpture of the philosopher-astrologer-monk Giordano Bruno who was burned alive for heresy in 1600.
Occasional street performers or buskers entertain the crowd and 20-somethings lounge around the base of the statue, chatting and chowing down on pizza al taglio (by the slice) or cooling off with gelato. It's much less crowded than the more glamourous but less charming Piazza Navona, where the souvenir-sellers and street performers are so numerous that they detract from the experience.
A restaurant just off the piazza called Hostaria Baullari turned out to be a favourite stop. We loved the caprese salad, 4-cheese gnocchi, pasta caramelle with pears and pistachios, and grilled fish. The host Ali and one of the waiters became our temporary buddies, greeting and chatting with us every time we passed by during our five days in Rome. They referred to my18-year old nephew as 'Big Boss', and Ali exchanged cool guy macho handshakes with him each day. It felt like they were welcoming us into their neighbourhood, and they made us smile every time, no matter how hot and exhausted we were.
Viewing the Vatican
Visiting Italy in peak season meant we had to be strategic about seeing the main attractions. It was well worth paying extra for a skip-the-line tour of the Vatican with Walks of Italy. It saved us waiting 90 minutes or more in the sweltering heat, and having an expert guide helped us get the most out of our visit. Not only was he knowledgeable, but he was also a genius at maneuvering our small group of 14 in between the larger ones.
However, even in a small group, a bad apple or two can spoil things. One family never showed up after our free time in the Sistine Chapel, and they didn't bother to tell the guide they were bailing out. We waited and waited for them, causing us to miss our chance to see St Peter's Basillica by just minutes before it closed unexpectedly early for the day.
So, we'll have to wait until next time to see the glorious dome and Michaelangelo's Pieta, but it was awe-inspiring to see the many other masterworks: the Apollo Belvedere, the Sistine Chapel ceiling and Last Judgement, Raphael's School of Athens and the map gallery. What an amazing trove of treasures the Catholic Church stewards.
In the Vatican gift shop, I was surprised by the rock star treatment given to Pope Francis. I knew he was well-loved, but I had no idea you could buy Pope Francis posters, t-shirts, fridge magnets and even bobble-heads! There was also the mildly disturbing Calendario Romano featuring the city's most handsome priests in a sort of chaste version of a firefighters'calendar. I settled for a postcard and stamp to send some novelty mail postmarked from the Poste Vaticane.
Rome's ancient heart
We didn't book a tour for the Colosseum or Forum, but we bought tickets online beforehand and forced ourselves to get up early enough to arrive just before the gates opened. That enabled us to bypass the long ticket-buying line and head directly to the shorter security line, which moved quickly.
While most other visitors then lined up at the audio guide window to get their headsets, we went directly to the top level. We had previously downloaded a self-guided audio tour to our phones, which provided all the insight and context we needed. All of this meant that we were among the first to enjoy un-cluttered stadium views with few other people around. It didn't last long, but it was nice to have a few moments of relative quiet to contemplate the lives of the gladiators who trained and fought for their lives in the arena.
Moving across the street to the Forum, lineups weren't a problem, but the early start helped us beat the midday summer heat - key for this large site with little shade. We queued up another audio tour to help us understand what we were seeing.
It takes imagination to picture what the marketplace was like at the height of the Empire, but it was a cool experience to walk in the footsteps of the emperors, soldiers, Vestal Virgins and other citizens of ancient Rome.
While the Forum requires imagination, the Pantheon is perfectly preserved despite its ripe old age of 1900 years. We visited in early evening and admired the massive dome, spotting birds flying over the oculus as a large shaft of light made the marble floors glow. There's little in the way of art inside, in contrast to most Italian churches. I quite like it that way - the perfect symmetry and minimalistic design create a calming atmosphere; a refuge from Rome's bustling streets.
From the Pantheon, we walked through medieval lanes and past Baroque fountains to reach the most famous fountain of all -- the Trevi. Unfortunately, it was under construction, so no water was flowing. We could only view Bernini's massive sculpture through scaffolding, and there wasn't much of what would be the normal lively social scene.
A few blocks away, the Spanish Steps was where the evening action was. We took a seat among the crowds and enjoyed the people watching -- street performers, families of tourists from all over the world, groups of teenagers, romantic couples and even a wedding party posing for photos.
No doubt you'll pass by the massive gleaming white Vittorio Emanuele Monument at least once during your stay in Rome. A huge statue of Italy's first king riding his horse stands at the base of one of the city's seven hills -- the Capitoline.
Our main reason for visiting was to ride the 'Rome from the Sky' elevator up to the top of the hill. We almost suffocated in the airless claustrophobic elevator car, but once we emerged at the top, the 360 degree views of Rome were breathtaking. We could see the Colosseum and Forum, St. Peter's Basilica and the entire city glowing below us in the late afternoon light.
With all of those major monuments under our belts, we had time for some shopping, wandering and off-the-beaten path activities. We strolled past many lovely smaller piazzas, more fountains, narrow streets with shops and cafes, and beautiful church facades around practically every corner.
Roman summer survival strategies
It takes planning, patience and flexibility to enjoy crowded Rome in the heat of summer. If you have a choice of when to travel, I'd strongly advise avoiding July and August. But, if summer is your only option (as it was for us), follow these tips to make the best of your trip:
Book skip-the-line tours and/or buy advance tickets for the most heavily visited attractions: the Vatican and Colosseum
Embrace the siesta. Plan your outdoor sightseeing in the morning and evenings. At midday, have a leisurely lunch and a rest in your air-conditioned hotel. Then continue your activities and dine late, as the Romans do.
If your itinerary is compressed to the point that you can't spare time for a daily siesta, focus on indoor sites, museums and shopping in air-conditioned stores during the heat of the afternoon.
Stay hydrated. There are hundreds of public fountains all over the city providing pure, fresh water to refill your bottles. After all, the Romans have always been brilliant at water systems.
Eat gelato. You'll find the cool, creamy treat everywhere, and taking a break with a cone or dish will re-energize you for whatever is next.
Consider taxis. If you're covering any distance in the afternoon, taxis are fairly affordable in Rome. If you have three or more people in your group, the cost is usually barely more than public transit, and infinitely more comfortable.
Reading for Rome
5 books to read to provide context for your Roman adventure:
Rome Tales (City Tales) is a collection of short stories from different authors and time periods.
Travel back in time to the year 115 with Alberto Angelo's A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome. This is a non-fiction work, but the author brings the homes, streets and public spaces of the ancient city to life in a most engaging way.
The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone provides fascinating context for seeing the art collections at the Vatican. It's a fictional biography of Michaelangelo that's grounded in history
The Woman of Rome by Alberto Moravia. Set in the time of Mussolini, characters include a failed revolutionary, a tragically beautiful artist's model-turned-prostitute, a brutal criminal and a member of the Secret Police.
If you want a page-turner, reach for Dan Brown's DaVinci Code. It's a riddle-filled romp through contemporary Rome full of intrigue, urban adventures and religious conspiracy theory.
For more Italian tales, read about my visit to Sorrento and the Amalfi coast.