From Naples and Pompeii, we broke up the 250km drive to the eternal city with a free stopover at the picturesque village of Strangolagalli, high up in the Lazio hills.
We caused much interest in this little village, which translates into the alarmingly named “chicken strangler”. We had only realised this after defrosting some pollo for a pesto pasta later in the evening. Ooops. When near Rome…
The parking gave a panoramic view of the green fields and olive groves below but the town’s bells rang out every quarter hour above Bertha’s cab, so it was a weary drive the next morning into Rome listening to Pope Francis’ Sunday address on the radio.
From our Rome campsite we could hear the bells of St Peter’s, being only 4kms away down the tram track from the ancient gateway of Porta Maggiore.
The 4kms proved to be a grubby stretch of high rise flats and cheap shops with buildings covered in graffiti and public urinating common place. Quite probably a taste of timeless Roman life outside of the famous centre, but we were surprised generally by how down at heel and decrepit even the big sights currently are.
A day on foot gave us the chance to see the ancient and modern city and we began at St Peter’s Square where thousands of chairs and barricades were still in place following yesterday’s packed service by the new Pope.
We were amused to see huge banners advertising an exhibition about Argentina within St Paul’s and generally saw many other references to the city’s love affair with its new Pope and his homeland.
Venturing off the beaten track and winding our way down through steep cobbled lanes we came upon an unforgettable view across the remains of the Roman Forum from the fenced off Palatine Hill.
It was worth the drive alone to be struck in wonder at the scale of the architecture and ancient street pattern still clearly visible and open to wander amongst the towering columns and porticos.
We chose not to revisit the Coliseum but enjoyed walking around its perfect perimeter, dodging the traffic that speeds past it as the site is effectively a glorified roundabout.
It’s always interesting to sit and observe behaviour at worldwide renowned tourist spots like this. Often stereotypes sadly ring true with a collection of sharp selfie sticks, elbow barging and a sense of self importance rather than the wonderment of the place.
The tour buses seemingly come and go within an hour as people from all nationalities are parachuted in for a quick photo and a souvenir.
We meandered along the graffiti walls of the Tiber and down and round the many large and small piazzas where we jostled for pavement space with an army of tables and chairs being set up for lunch under the hot sun.
Our tourist menu should have cost us €12 for a salad and plate of pasta each but ended up costing twice that amount as various cover charges, tourist taxes and an extortionately priced glass of table wine was added.
We then had to wrestle our €9 change from the waiter who was hustling aggressively for a tip. Simon had plenty to offer him but thankfully was defeated by the language barrier!
Back in the 18th century centre we watched the posing Carabinieri on the Spanish Steps and joined the throng at the Trevi Fountain but were unable to make a wish as the water was drained and the millions of coins were being shovelled up and bagged by city officials.
The sense of disappointment from people arriving at the fountain was quite touching and it was fascinating to hear the audible gasps as they realised just how much money was being collected by the rather lacklustre yellow welly wearing council workers.
It was an interesting sight and one that did rather sum up our short experience of Rome, which seems to be that it is very driven toward taking money but is not visibly spending it on its shamefully deteriorating attractions.
We returned on the crammed and over-heated tram back to our dusty Roman campsite to enjoy a dinner of “strangled chicken” – a new dish Simon had created in honour of our visit to Strangolagalli. I think we’ll stick to the Italian name…