The sights of Rome are often the big draw, but Paul Jeeves sees how it compares with its Tuscan neighbour of Florence.
ROME is undoubtedly a city of contradictions. History, culture and romance are all embedded in its ancient architecture, but visitors also need to be braced for a city that is frenetic, filled with tourist tackiness and plagued by graffiti.
Away from the main attractions and down the city’s many back streets is where the real Rome can be uncovered and for that there’s nowhere better to stay than the unpolished gem of the Monti district. Less than a 10-minute walk to the Colosseum, its warren of cobbled streets are also home to bars, restaurants and shops which many tourists would never encounter.
The Monti district may not register with everyone who visits Rome, but it has an undoubted charm all of its own, away from the crowds who descend on the tourist traps of the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain. Indeed, those two landmarks are indicative of the way Rome has evolved. They can take the breath away from any onlooker, but the chance to witness their beauty is quickly eroded by surging crowds. The home of the English poet, John Keats, which nestles at the foot of the Spanish Steps, provides a glimpse into the past when tourism had not suffocated much of the raw emotion of the city.
Standing on a balcony overlooking the steps, it is easy to see why Keats fell in love with the view before tuberculosis cut short his life at the tender age of 25. A wedding party had their photographs taken on the steps as we spent a moment looking out, and the romance of Rome flourished again.
One of the best ways to see the city – as long as you are willing to pack in as much as possible – is to buy a Roma Pass. The biggest perk is that you are able to slip past the snaking queues outside of the Colosseum, and avoid the possibility of sunstroke in the process.
The ampitheatre, which was the largest of its kind ever built by the ancient Romans, is a sight which should not be missed. It is an amazing feat of engineering, and the history and bloody battles that were played out in front of the tens of thousands of spectators more than 2,000 years ago still pervade the atmosphere.
The Roma Pass provides free entry to the first two museums visited as well as concessionary prices for subsequent venues. It also gives free travel on public transport for three days, which was a bonus for us to get across to another must-see, The Vatican, which was on the other side of the city from Monti.
The greatest piece of advice to anyone visiting either St Peter’s Basilica or the Vatican Museum is to book yourself on a guided tour. The church and the museum are both so vast that it would take several visits to fully appreciate them, and the presence of a tour guide is priceless to at least get some sort of understanding.
The route around the Vatican Museum takes in tens of thousands of ancient statues and artworks. It’s a cultural overload and without our own guide we would have almost certainly missed the tapestry of Jesus whose eyes eerily follow you as you pass down the corridor.
The tour climaxes with the breath-taking Sistine Chapel. The patience and skill that Michelangelo employed during the four years it took him to paint the frescoed ceiling is unquestionably one of the world’s greatest artistic triumphs.
The biggest shame while standing beneath his masterpiece is the constant buzz of conversation and click of cameras as the vast majority of visitors ignore the signs for silence and no photographs.
However, for all its blemishes, Rome is a city that is hard not to love – but it is somewhere that often fails to match its Tuscan neighbour of Florence.
The city’s architecture is stunning, capturing the affluence and the desire to succeed that has epitomised the blossoming of Florence through the ages. It is not hard to see why the World Heritage Site is often said to be the most beautiful city in the world.
During the medieval ages, Florence flourished as a centre for trade and commerce, and its entrepreneurial spirit still thrives today.
The streets are lined with some of the most exclusive names in fashion, which sit alongside bustling markets that cater for the alternative end of the shopping spectrum. The city lays claim to being the birthplace of the Renaissance, and its foundations of art and culture are evident throughout the wealth of museums and galleries that are scattered across the centre of Florence.
The venue which captures the essence of the capital of Tuscany is the Uffizi gallery which has as its centrepiece the glorious 17ft high marble of David, rising above the heads of visitors as a testament to Michelangelo’s skill as a sculptor.
But like Rome, there is a danger that you can have too much of a glorious thing. Any visit has to marry the desire to take in the plethora of churches, frescoes and museums with the need to take a step back to take in the surroundings.
The best way to soak up the atmosphere is to adopt a little of the Italian way of life. There is nothing more satisfying than settling down outside a café with a chilled beer or glass of Chianti for company to sample what it is to be in Italy.
And what a country it is. A rough diamond in parts, but one that is bursting full of culture, vitality and a desire to keep the past alive while still looking to the future.
Direct flights are available with Jet2 to Rome from Leeds-Bradford Airport. More information is available at www.leedsbradfordairport.co.uk. To pre-book on-site car parking, a fast-track check-and access to the Yorkshire Premier Lounge, visit www.leedsbradfordairport.co.uk.
The four-star Hotel dei Borgognoni on Via del Bufalo, Rome. Telephone 0039 066 994 1505 or visit www.hotelborgognoni.com.
The four-star Hotel Croce di Malta on Via della Scala, Florence. Telephone 0039 055 261870 or visit www.crocedimalta.it.
The five-star Relais Santa Croce on Via Ghibellina, Florence. Telephone 0039 055 234 2230 or visit www.baglionihotels.com
Hire cars are available from Europcar at www.europcar.co.uk, 0871 384 1087.
The Roma Pass is available at www.romapass.it. www.turismoroma, 0039 060608.