No place like Rome!

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iol travel dec 12 rome

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Rome, which itself rose two places from fourth last year.

Rome - The warm sun was on our backs. Pine trees on the Palatine hill, where Romulus and Remus were suckled by the she-wolf, stood sharp against a deep blue sky.

Before us stretched the ruins of the Forum, with its basilicas and temples to vestal virgins, and monumental victory arches built by emperors to mark crushing victories. All in all, not a bad spot — but you would not have guessed so from my teenage son’s reaction. “I’m bored,” he said. And, in case we’d missed the point: “It’s so-o-o boring.”

Here was a boy who, judging by the number of hours playing blood-soaked computer games such as Rome, Total War and Gladiator, Sword of Vengeance, should have been entranced.

Yet as he and his sister traipsed through Rome, their eyes rolled in dismay and their yawns became more deliberate as I forced them to listen to me reading from a guidebook. “You’re even more boring than my most boring teacher,” remarked my daughter. Surely not.

The trouble was that I considered myself a bit of an expert. My parents lived in Rome and I spent school and university holidays there.

I remember how my parents had once flown out my maiden great aunt for her 80th birthday. A taciturn lady of firm views, she had seldom travelled far from her bungalow in Rochdale, Lancashire. After being given a tour of the city with my father as guide, she simply said: “I don’t like ruins.” Perhaps my children had taken after her. We were only in Rome for three days, on an easyjet winter break (and, believe me, winter is the best time to visit) staying in a comfortable but basic hotel behind the Vatican a mile from the city centre.

iol travel dec 12 rome2

People cool off at a fountain during a hot summer day in Rome.

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Fortunately, on the sight-seeing front I’d made a contingency plan by hiring a proper guide to take us on a three-hour morning tour of what he called hidden Rome.

Englishman John Fort is an Oxford-educated Old Etonian who has lived in Rome for some 40 years and was commissioned to update and recast the seminal Companion Guide to Rome by Georgina Masson. When he showed us around there was not even a stifled yawn from the children.

He pointed out the extraordinary spiral dome of the church of S. Ivo alla Sapienza, built in the shape of a bee’s bottom by the architectural genius Borromini to demonstrate the immense power of his patrons, the Barberini family — whose heraldic sign happened to be a bee.

He regaled us with stories of grim executions in the Campo dei Fiori in the 1600s, and told us how the massive granite baths of the square’s two exquisite fountains had been pillaged during the Renaissance from the ruins of the Roman Baths of Caracalla.

We poked our heads into the tiny Tempietto del Bramante, a perfectly proportioned temple almost too small to stand up in, built by the architect of St Peter’s on the spot in Rome where St Peter himself was supposedly crucified upside down.

We saw the marble effigy of St Cecilia, who was martyred in the third century AD. First they tried to scald her to death by shutting her up in her own hot baths.

When she survived that, all the while singing the hymns that were to make her patron saint of music, an executioner was dispatched to behead her. His blunt axe failed him, and she took three days to die — which explains the ugly gash in the neck of her beautiful recumbent form.

John brought Rome to life for us, peppering the place with stories of violence, lust, greed, ambition, brilliance and extraordinary achievement.

He offered us top tips as well: avoid the appalling queues for the Vatican and Sistine chapel by buying tickets online at the Vatican website. Buy tickets to see the Coliseum at the entrance to the Forum, where the queues are smaller. And if you’re looking for the best ice-cream in Rome, try Gelateria Alberto Pica, via della Seggiola, near the Campo dei Fiori.

Above all, though, when taking recalcitrant teenage children on a tour of the city, just remember how deadly dull you can be. - Daily Mail

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