Visited Rome in September 2014

After my last visit in June 2008, I wished to visit Rome a second time to see more of this city and its surroundings. My first visit lasted merely two days, yet allowed me to see the majority of the most popular attractions. On this second visit, I wanted to use nine days to visit the other highlights in and around the city. Unfortunately Stephanie could not join me because she had already spent her free days. This meant I had to go alone, but I found good company with two hosts from CouchSurfing. I visited these places:

  • Mon 15th: arrival at Rome Ciampino Airport
  • Tue 16th: Cerveteri (National Museum, Banditaccia Necropolis)
  • Wed 17th: Tarquinia (National Archaeological Museum, Monterozzi Necropolis)
  • Thu 18th: Tivoli (Villa d’Este, Villa Adriana)
  • Fri 19th: National Etruscan Museum, Pincian Hill, Piazza del Popolo, Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, Baths of Caracalla
  • Sat 20th: Via Appia Antica (Catacombs of Callixtus, Catacombs of St. Sebastian, Circus of Maxentius, Tomb of Caecilia Metella)
  • Sun 21st: Basilica of Saint Peter in Chains, Baths of Trajan, Ostia Antica, Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls
  • Mon 22nd: Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, Basilica of Saint Mary in Trastevere, Palazzo Corsini, Botanical Garden, Janiculum
  • Tue 23rd: departure from Rome Ciampino Airport

Cerveteri and Tarquinia had a high priority for me. These small towns northwest of Rome are known for their Etruscan necropolises, which are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Both towns are close to a railway, so you can go there by train and travel the last kilometers by bus from the railway station. From Rome, Cerveteri can also be reached by bus alone, with a transfer to another bus at Ladispoli. The Lonely Planet travel guide for Rome focuses on Cerveteri and mentions Tarquinia only in passing; I concur.

The Banditaccia Necropolis of Cerveteri is one of a kind. The Greek word necropolis means ‘city of the dead’ and is generally used for elaborate ancient cemeteries. The literal meaning of the word applies so aptly to the Banditaccia necropolis. When you walk through it, it bears a great resemblance to a settlement for the living, with all its streets and tombs which look like houses. It is also quite large. I have to commend how the authorities present the site to visitors, with free guided tours through the necropolis and audiovisual presentations inside select tombs. The same goes for the museum of Cerveteri, the audiovisual presentation there engages visitors with the exhibition so well. If you are short on time, prioritize Cerveteri over Tarquinia.

Street in Banditaccia Necropolis

What distinguishes Cerveteri from Tarquinia is that in the former the structures above the ground are intact but the frescoes inside the tombs were lost, while this is the other way around for the latter. At Tarquinia’s Monterozzi Necropolis the structures of the tombs above the ground were lost and the real attractions are the frescoes in the subterranean parts of the tombs. In many cases these have not been very well preserved, but there are some exceptions. In reality you can’t see much of the tomb’s frescoes however: you cannot enter the tombs for reasons of conservation, you can look at the interior through the glass of a thermal door. This also applies to some of the frescoes which have been transferred to Tarquinia’s museum.

While restricting the access to the tombs is understandable, this reduces the appeal of a visit to the site. Fortunately, for an extra fee you can take a guided tour at the site. The tour takes you to some more remote tombs which are only accessible under the supervision of a guide (but still protected by a thermal door). Without the guided tour, you just get access to a smaller part of the necropolis were the majority of the tombs are located. The guided tour compensated my slight disappointment and made it worthwhile for me. I keep thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if they hired some fresco painters to make replicas of the tombs so you could get a better look at the frescoes? Wouldn’t such a thing attract much more tourists to Tarquinia?

Tivoli is another town close to Rome which deserves a day trip for its two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Villa d’Este and Villa Adriana. The town lies northeast of Rome and can be reached by bus from the Ponte Mammolo subway station. Villa d’Este is a magnificent villa with an even more impressive garden. However, when you take the bus back to Rome and make another stop further south in Tivoli for the Villa Adriana, you will be even more impressed. The name is deceptive, because it’s not a villa, but a full-blown palace complex occupying more than one square kilometer.

Villa d'Este in Tivoli

Great Baths in Hadrian’s Villa

After my visit to the necropolises of Banditaccia and Monterozzi, I visited the National Etruscan Museum in Rome to provide context for what I saw there. Highly recommended museum with a large collection. After spending a lot of time at the museum I walked in a southern direction and ended the day with the Baths of Caracalla. Even though it’s ruined now, most of its huge walls are still standing, suggesting its former grandiosity. It’s hard to picture that such a fortune was spent on the construction of a bathhouse open to every free male citizen. The emperors Septimus Severus and Caracalla must have considered this form of propaganda to be very important.

Baths of Caracalla

Together with Cerveteri, Ostia Antica was the high point of my trip. I didn’t know the ruins of this ancient Roman city were in fact on par with Pompeii, which I had seen a year earlier. The level of preservation and the size of both ruins are quite similar. It is as if you take a step into classical antiquity itself. My imagination became overwhelmed as I wondered what this city was like in all its former glory. With a guided tour a visit to this site would be even more enjoyable. On the way back to Rome’s center, make sure to visit the beautiful Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/avanloon/15595755882/

Basilica of Saint Paul outside the Walls, Rome

On the last day I spent most of my time in art museums. The Galleria Doria-Pamphilij is absolutely recommended with its many famous pieces. So is the Palazzo Corsini, one of the two locations of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica. I didn’t have time to visit the other location, the Palazzo Barberini.

Like the Palazzo Barberini, there are still plenty of places and attractions I want to see in a future visit to Rome. I couldn’t make a reservation for the Galleria Borghese in time. The Domus Aurea was closed for restorations. I didn’t have time to see the Villa of the Quintilii, the Museum of Roman Civilization, several locations of the National Roman Museum (except for the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, which is close to Termini) and the National Museum of Oriental Art.

Concerning food, I was slightly disappointed with Rome. I specifically selected good restaurants from TripAdvisor, but it wasn’t as memorable as the food from southern Italy. Roman cuisine also seems to have a greater focus on meat dishes and is apparently not so creative with vegetables. Or maybe I just had bad luck in my choice of restaurants.

I had a good CouchSurfing experience on this trip. It took some perseverance to find hosts, I had to send CouchRequests to almost 150 people before I succeeded. One hosted me for the first five days of my stay, the other for the last five days. Even though they couldn’t keep me company during the day because they had to work, I greatly enjoyed their company and am very grateful for their hospitality.

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