A winter break in Rome

As if it’s been half a year since I was last in an airport! Not quite sure where time goes, but in keeping with recent tradition, me & the other half are breaking the January lull with a European minibreak, this time to Rome! I like to do these trips as cheap as possible, cashing in hotels.com rewards & Topcashback to offset the costs. Rome & Venice were both bargains although Paris was a bit of a splurge!

As we had an early flight from Manchester to Rome, I’d booked us in to one of the Premier Inns near to the airport. I usually go for the Runger Lane North hotel but booked South this time. I remembered my little trick for avoiding the nightmare motorway junction by heading for the Jet Parks car park and felt pretty pleased with myself again!

After an OK stay at the Premier Inn, we drove to the Long Stay car park at the airport and headed through security. I’d bought access to the 1903 lounge in Terminal 1 in Manchester Airport’s Black Friday sale and got fast track included so we whizzed through security in no time at all. The security staff were surprisingly pleasant which is unusual for Manchester, especially at 0530!

We made our way to the 1903 lounge and were the only ones in there! I was impressed with the décor and runway views, although it was too dark to see much. The only thing I thought was missing was tables to sit and eat at, especially as we were there at breakfast time and I had to eat off my lap which I’m never a fan of doing.

There were the usual breakfast items already out when we arrived, a decent hot buffet, pastries & yoghurt. The bacon was lovely even if it doesn’t look like it! It was fatty & chewy which is perfect for me. The orange juice was good but I really loved that you can choose the strength of your coffee using a tablet on the counter.

The bar was well stocked and I toyed with the idea of a bucks fizz but decided it really was too early to be drinking! There were 3 types of rum, prosecco, craft beers, fever tree tonics as well as soft drinks.

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The staff were polite and quick to clear away dishes, the welcome from the host was particularly warm. The toilets and shower suite very spotlessly clean and very smart with White Company toiletries.

As 1903 caps your stay at 2 hours, we headed to the gate and departed right on time. The flight was uneventful but I’m always surprised by the decent amount of legroom on Jet2 planes.

On arrival in Rome, we passed through passport control really quick and headed to the station to catch the Leonardo Express train to the city centre. At €14pp each way and taking about 35 minutes, it’s probably the best value way of getting between the airport & the city. There are ticket machines with multiple languages on your approach to the station and in the station itself so there’s a couple of opportunities to buy tickets. You will need a ticket to get through the barriers at the station.

I’m not sure why, but we walked from the station to the hotel which took over 20 minutes and was up & down what felt like all 7 of Rome’s hills! I misread Google and we overshot the street that the hotel was on and instead followed the signs for the Trevi Fountain, which I knew the hotel was near. Even after finding the fountain, we still managed to walk past the hotel but, in our defence, the entrance is just 1 door! After dropping off our bags, we stopped at a little cafe where we shared a toastie to save on calories but then still had 2 desserts!

The hotel was about 100m from the Trevi Fountain but the crowds made it hard to get a decent look at it so we headed off for a walk around town to get our bearings and see some historic shiz. We walked for miles, first stopping at the Pantheon, a Roman temple some 2000 years old! I’m always blown away but the size, scale and ingenuity of these buildings when you realise how old they are. The Pantheon is still in great nick, having been rebuilt a few times after fires, with the current structure thought to date back to 120 AD! It was pretty cool to see the monument to the famous Renaissance artist, Raphael and I loved the design of the roof with a hole in it.

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We stumbled across the ruins of Largo di Torre Argentina, a 4-temple complex dating back to the 3rd century BC! Whilst it’s currently closed for restoration, you can look down on the ruins from the street above and whilst it’s quite a small complex, it’s no less impressive to look at or be short of historical significance, as it’s possibly the place where Julius Caesar was killed in 44 BC.

This is one of the crazy things about Rome, everywhere you look is steeped in history. And not just hundreds of years of history, but thousands! It’s so easy to imagine what the world was like all those years ago when you can stick your nose around old houses, shops and temples!

Heading over to the Victor Emmanuel II Monument, a colossal building on Piazza Venezia, we first walked around the back of the building to enjoy the view over the Roman Forum with the Colosseum in the background before climbing the 196 steps up to the museum. The museum is free to enter but as were short on time (and not particularly interested in Italian Unification) we didn’t go inside. Instead, we walked around the perimeter of the building and then caught the glass panoramic lift to the roof of the building for one of the best views over the city. We didn’t stay any more than about 15 minutes at the top but it was still worth the cost. I do wish we had sat and had an Aperol in the café with the view over the Roman Forum but we’ll have to save that for next time, when the weather is a bit warmer!

Absolutely shattered after our 4am start and walking about 6 miles, we headed back to the hotel for a nap before heading for dinner at a little osteria near to the Trevi Fountain. Whilst a lot of the restaurants in this area are tourist traps, the food was still excellent – why have I never put jam on cheese before?! – even if I waited too long for my ravioli.

As it was chucking it down the next morning, we decided to get a taxi to the Vatican City rather than walk and get the Metro. It was only €15 so worth it considering the weather! The downside was that we arrived almost an hour before our guided tour and so ended up in a café sheltering from the rain where a waitress persuaded us to buy pancakes, despite already having breakfast! They were delicious though!

We were allowed to enter the museum 30 minutes before our tour start time and there weren’t any queues to get into the building. The queue for security was also very short although I expect it gets crazy during peak season.

I’d booked one of the longest guided tours available as we wanted to see and get the most out of our visit. The line to buy tickets was long, even for a Saturday in January and the guide did say that Saturdays and Mondays are now very busy all year around so I was glad I’d planned ahead.

Our tour started at 1000 and first we were given a 30-minute talk about the Sistine Chapel, the history of the building and the famous artworks inside – including the ceiling by Michelangelo which was painted 1508-1512. It’s not possible to talk inside the chapel so it’s highlights are pointed out before entering the sacred building. As well as the ceiling, we were told about the paintings along the walls of the chapel and how they tell the story of Moses & Jesus with the guide pointing out meaning and symbolisms in each fresco. Now, I’m not art buff, nor am I a theologian, but it was interesting, nonetheless.

The Vatican Museum complex is huge and there’s so much to see! I’d definitely suggest a guided tour, or at least hiring the audio guide. Our guide took us to the most important and meaningful artefacts in the museum, be it paintings or sculptures and explained hidden details which we would have otherwise missed. As it was so busy, our guide was able to make sure that we didn’t get caught in crowds and lose time stuck in rooms with nothing much to see in them.

Our 3-hour tour concluded with a visit to St Peter’s Basilica, the biggest and most significant Christian church in the world. A church has stood on this site since the 4th century AD with the current structure dating from 1626. Named after one of Jesus’ disciples, the church was built on top of where St Peter was meant to have been killed and buried in 64AD. Whilst touring the church, you can see and – with special advance permission from the Vatican – visit the tomb reportedly to be of St Peter, whose remains were discovered in the 1930s.

After the tour, we spent a bit more time exploring the church before heading for lunch and escaping the rain. We tried to be sensible and had a salad but still ended up a dessert each!

Heading for the Metro, we caught the train to Spagna station which is one of the nearest to our hotel but also conveniently where the Spanish Steps are. To be honest, I’m not quite sure why the Spanish Steps are a must-see in Rome. Yeah, they’re nice and they’re old, but they’re also just some steps up to a church.

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Sticking local to the hotel again for dinner, we managed to squeeze into a restaurant that had a queue outside it every time we walked past. The food was fine so not sure what all the fuss is about but we did let ourselves down by ordering desserts, especially when we saw the size of them!

Up early the next day, we had a tour of the Colosseum booked for 0925. As the weather was cold and bright, we walked from the hotel and got to the Colosseum for around 0900. The streets leading up to the Colosseum were quiet and it was great to feel like we had the place to ourselves. Even the Trevi Fountain didn’t have a massive crowd around it!

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Booking the tickets for the Colosseum was quite a stressful process, particularly as I wanted the full access tour which takes you from the underground level all the way up to the third level. Tickets are released in 3-month batches and visitor numbers are capped at 3000 at a time to protect the monument, with guided tour numbers capped at just 25-30. As I was booking the tour, I can see the number of available tickets reduce and panicked that I wouldn’t get the date & time slot I wanted. As I’d already booked the Vatican tour, we were quite restricted on when we could go to the Colosseum, but I managed to get the tickets I wanted in the end!

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There were Colosseum staff all around and helpfully gave directions on which entrance to use, depending on the ticket type you have. Despite our ticket saying 0925, this turned out to be the time we needed to arrive for and the tour actually started at 0940. Those clever Italians, tricking people in to arriving early!

Everyone says that the Colosseum is spectacular, and it really is! The size is impressive and when you think about what happened there all those years ago, your mind is blown!

Our guide explained how construction took just 8 years, from 72AD using the labour of some 60,000 Jewish slaves and that around 4,000 animals and 10,000 gladiators used the amphitheatre during its first 100 days putting on violet shows to the death in front of up to 50,000 spectators!

Mornings at the Colosseum used to be about animal fights, with exotic breeds shipped from around the world. Lunchtimes were spent on criminal executions before the gladiator shows started in the evening. A replica lift and pully system shows has animals were brought up into the arena via one of 40 elevators which gladiators would have to fight off, not knowing which elevator was going to come up next.

Our all access tour took us underground where the animals were kept and corridors linked to the gladiator barracks. You could see the construction methods used with some arches not cemented and others built using cement made from volcanic sand. After exploring underground, we took a brief walk around the exhibits within the second-floor tier showing artefacts discovered during archaeological digs over the years before ascending via a private gate to the third tier.

The third tier was definitely the best bit of the tour. Not only did we have the place to ourselves, we could see right across the centre stage of the Colosseum as well as look over the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. Our time at the top was short but it was no less special and I’m glad we paid a bit extra for the privilege.

After the tour, we explored a bit more on our own before heading across to the Roman Forum. The line to enter snaked all the way down the path, even for those who already had tickets. Lucky for us, one of the guides told us to use the entrance on Via di San Gregorio which was much less crowded and we were able to walk straight in! As this entrance is the Palatine Hill side, I guess it’s much less popular than the Forum, but it takes less than 5 minutes to walk between the two. As we were short on time before having to head to the airport, we had a quick walk around the Forum and marvelled at the ruins of the old shopping arcades, houses and temples. With so much history, its hard to know where to begin, but Rome has definitely been a highlight destination and somewhere I’d definitely like to visit again someday.

 

 

 

Date of trip: January 2020

Price paid: £108.00pp for flights with Jet2. £17.00pp for 2 nights at the Trevi Beau Boutique hotel booked through hotels.com, using 2 Reward nights. £40.00pp for overnight stay at the Premium Inn Manchester Airport including car parking booked through Holiday Extras. £23.00pp for 1903 lounge access at Manchester Airport. €39.00pp for the 3-hour guided tour of the Vatican Museum including the Sistine Chapel & St Peter’s Basilica. €39.00pp for the 1.5-hour tour of the Colosseum including underground and level 3 access. Costs offset by using £100.00 of cashback earned through Topcashback.  

Points earned: 774 Virgin Flying Club miles for paying for the above on the Virgin Atlantic credit card.

 

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