Rome’s Piazza Navona, for three centuries the city’s main market.
Rome’s Piazza Navona, for three centuries the city’s main market. Phant

Despite the tourists, Rome is always worth a visit

IN 1970 there were no messy crowds sitting on the Spanish Steps in Rome. Just a few hippies making little crocheted bits and bobs to sell, them and me and my then-new husband.

Fast forward to September 2015. You couldn't see the steps for crowds. No point trying to ascend the famous steps, too much hopping over bodies and stepping around backpacks.

It is the same all over Rome now. Everyone is a tourist it seems.

But Rome is ... well ... it's Rome and it is beyond wonderful, better than marvellous, grander than any of your imaginings.

We arrived in the heart of The Eternal City - St Peter's - after a delightful ride on a small private train from the port of Civitavecchia. We were on a day shore excursion from our cruise ship Nieuw Amsterdam, had 10 hours ahead of us in Rome and had to milk every hour for culture, fun and food.

Our train guide Philippe had entertained us with camp stories about Italy, given us a map and an order to "walk, do not get on the Metro ... you see nothing."

So the first thing we did was get on the Metro.

We had a plan: first to the Colosseum, too far to walk, and then a slow stroll back to St Peter's, stopping at the highlights.

Fortunately, we've visited Rome several times and didn't feel the need to go inside its many landmarks; otherwise, a three-hour wait would have to be endured. We are not good at enduring.

We were content to join the crowds outside the Colosseum, taking selfies, avoiding the blokes dressed as Centurions who work in pairs to fleece you. (One poses with you while the other takes your photo with your camera, then refuses to return it until 10 euros have been handed over.)

The Trevi Fountain was being cleaned, empty, surrounded by scaffolding and wire barriers, but that didn't stop 20,000 people from gathering in the tight space around it. (I know ... 20,000? An exaggeration, but it seemed like it.) Just a squished glimpse through the barricade at the famous fountain was enough and then a walk to Piazza Navona.

For three centuries Piazza Navona was the city's main market, now to sit quietly (despite the crowds) and be transfixed by Bernini's Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (fountain) despite Rome's surfeit of flamboyant fountains.

Then to the Pantheon, preserved for 2000 years and in continuous use and so spectacular it defies thinking. The temple had no long queue, just a never-ending procession of tourists slowly shuffling in and out.

Inside, its massive dimensions made the crowds seem sparse, its awe-inspiring dome had us cricking our necks to gaze in awe, its imposing Corinthian columns testament to this ancient Roman architectural wonder.

Then it was back to the hot streets and the walk to St Peter's, the world's largest church in the world's smallest country.

To stand there - once you have gathered your senses - in front of Michelangelo's Pieta, the statue of the body of Jesus after the crucifixion in his mother Mary's lap, makes you want to weep at the poetic beauty of it. It's impossible to believe the soft folds in Mary's clothes are actually Carrara marble, and you will be thankful you waited for hours for this alone.


Shore leave


We found shore excursion during our Nieuw Amsterdam Mediterranean cruise the easiest and most convenient way to explore the ports.

Smooth disembarkation into coaches or trains with English-speaking guides ensured there was no fear of being caught with disreputable operators.

Shore excursions can be chosen from a wide variety and booked ahead before you board, meaning no concerns about what to see or where to go.

Every excursion was planned meticulously, the Rome shore trip gave us a guide on the train and then the freedom to explore Rome on foot before returning to our guide and our train.

The writer was a guest on board Nieuw Amsterdam.