Rome: The Spanish Steps and The Trevi Fountain

The Spanish Steps

I’ve often wondered why people flock to the Spanish Steps, a stairway composed of 135 of the widest steps in Europe, but they are an institution in Rome so never one to miss out on an institution, I took myself off there.   I know the popularity of the steps has a lot to do with the William Wyler film A Roman Holiday which starred Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, just as The Trevi Fountain owes much of its popularity to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and its stars Anita Eksburg and Marcello Mastroioni, but nevertheless, I struggle to see the attraction here when the nearby gardens of the Villa Borghese are almost empty.

Built in the 18th century, this ultra-wide staircase was called the Spanish Steps because although designed by an Italian architect and financed by a French diplomat, it took the name from the Piazza di Spagna at their foot, in turn named after the nearby Spanish Embassy.  The steps were built to connect the Embassy with the Trinita dei Monti church which stands in the Piazza at the top of the steps.

The English poet John Keats once lived in the building at the bottom of the steps in what is now the Keats & Shelley Museum to the left of which is Babington’s, the famous tea-house serving homesick Brits since 1893.

The steps may seem the perfect place to tuck into a takeaway, a sandwich or an ice-cream but this is something you must not do. Roman regulations forbids consuming anything on these steps, part of an effort to keep them looking pristine. After the latest restoration this rule is being vigorously enforced.

Rome city buses are too big to negotiate the narrow streets around the Spanish Steps so if you are not going to walk to it, take Linea A (red line) on the Metro and exit at Spagna. The station is right next to the Spanish Steps.

The Trevi Fountain

The Trevi Fountain in June, so crowded impossible to get near

The Trevi Fountain is the largest Baroque fountain in Rome and one of the most famous fountains in the world having been featured in several notable films, including the above-mentioned Roman Holiday, Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, the eponymous Three Coins in the Fountain, and Sabrina Goes to Rome.  It is a non-stop photo opportunity from early morning until well after midnight, with a never-ending mass of people milling about, most of them with huge selfie-sticks and a disinclination to make room for others.  If you need peace and quiet plan to visit very early in the morning.

The fountain is said to date back to ancient Roman days, to the 19th century BC in fact, when the Aqua Virgo Aqueduct that provided water to the Roman baths and the fountains of central Rome was constructed, at the junction of three roads (tre vie) which give the Trevi Fountain its name.

It is is almost 50 metres across and heavily adorned with sculptures of Roman gods, tritons and horses, and is packed with visitors from morning till night. 

The Trevi Fountain is alwlays crowded with people, difficult to get near.

The Trevi Fountain

Approximately €3,000 is thrown into the fountain every day as people follow the tradition of throwing in coins. Legend has it that a coin thrown into the fountain will ensure a return to Rome, a legend that dates back to the ancient Romans who threw coins in water to ensure the water gods would bring them safely home. 

The coins are collected every night and given to the Italian charity Caritas which has a supermarket program giving rechargeable cards to Rome’s needy to help them get groceries.

The streets around the area are lined with trattorias, gelaterias and restaurants, most serving food and drink at reasonable  prices, despite its touristic position. Many shops sell wooden toys of the sort we don’t see nowadays, including Pinocchios from miniature to life-size.   Nearby Via di San Vincenzo and Via della Dataria will lead you to the Quirinal Palace, as well as the Piazza del Quirinale with its obelisk and fountain of Castor and Pollux.

Most of Rome’s famous sights are within walking distance of the centre but there is a hop-on hop-off bus that leaves from the left-hand side of Vittorio Emmanuel ll every 20 mintues or so and this is an excellent way of getting to know where things are. Vittorio Emmanuel ll and The Colosseum are quite near each other, so can be visited at the same time and the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain can be reached in about an hour from there, taking it at a leisurely pace.

Bougainvillea, a bike, a pretty girl and a bottle of wine: Italy.
Busy Trattorio
Pinocchio

ROME – STILL ETERNAL

My trip to Rome coincided with the heat wave which, although welcome in that it meant I didn’t need to carry around a shower-proof jacket (just in case), did mean I had to carry a paper umbrella bought from a street trader who must have thought his birthday and Christmas had come along at the same time, so many were the customers queuing up to buy his parasols.

Rome is wonderful in any weather but walking in 34ᵒ heat this time made sight-seeing a trifle difficult.  It did, however, allow for many more granitas and gelato stops, even as it cut down on the photography.

Part of the Forum

We stayed at the wonderful Forum Hotel, so named because it faces the Forum.  To wake up every morning and look out on the sprawl of ancient pillars and stones glowing from the rising sun, was magical.  We had the same view from the breakfast terrace on the rooftop, so although I usually forego breakfast, in this case it was a must. 

Part of the Forum

The Forum was ancient Rome’s showpiece centre, a site originally developed in the 7th century BC from a marshy burial ground which grew into the social, commercial and political hub of the Roman Empire.   It was a handsome district of temples, basilicas and bustling public spaces which, with a little imagination is easy to people with toga-clad inhabitants going about their business accompanied by their slaves.

Forum by Night

Part of the Forum is open for wandering around but to see it all one needs to pay.  However, I would say leave this until the end of your stay, because a) you can see some of it without charge and b) there is so much else to see in Rome and you can always return to it if you wish.

The Colosseum by Night (Photo Solange Hando)

It is but a short walk from the Forum to the Colosseum, the hugely impressive, troubling monument to Roman imperial power and cruelty.  Inside this emblem of Rome, behind the serried ranks of Tuscan, Iconic and Corinthian columns, and three storeys of superimposed arches, Romans for centuries cold-bloodedly killed thousands of people for amusement, and sent gladiators to their death as they fought wild animals like lions, tigers and leopards for the amusement of the rulers and the populace.

Inside the Colosseum

The Colosseum is now a mere shadow of its former self as only about one-third of the original building still stands, its glistening marble and stone having been carried away and used in the building of palaces and churches by Roman popes and aristocrats who coveted it. Nearby Palazzo Venezia and the Tiber’s river defences are just two examples of this.

Looking down at the pits from which the animals would emerge

Originally the largest amphitheatre in the Roman world, a pleasure palace built for the people by the emperor Vespasian (69-79) to a design worked out before the building began, it was capable of holding 50,000 spectators,  

It is difficult not to quote sizes and quantities in such an undertaking, suffice to say that drains were built 8m beneath the structure to take away the streams that flow from the valleys and hills that surround Rome: the foundations under the outer walls and seating are 12-13m deep while under the inner part of the arena they are only 4m deep.  The spoil dug from the foundations was used to raise the surround level by over 6m. 

Sometimes quoting facts and figures like these can take away from the brooding power of the Colosseum, but I never fail to be moved by an atmosphere still inside those walls. 

The Victor Emmanuel Palace. 

Vittorio Emmanuel ll Palace

 Also known as ‘Il Vittoriano’ and sometimes referred to as The Wedding Cake Palace by the locals, this monument to King Victor Emanuel II, is a bombastic monument of sparkling white marble decorated with numerous allegorical statues, reliefs and murals.  At the center of the monument is the colossal equestrian statue of Victor Emmanuel, and on either side are fountains representing the seas that border Italy, the Adriatic Sea and the Tyrrhenian Sea.  At the foot of the statue Guards of honor, selected from the marine, infantry and air divisions, guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier day and night.

The Vittorio Emmanuel ll Palace

Inside the monument is the Museo Centrale del Risorgimento, which charts the events that led to the unification of Italy, with a display of paintings, documents, photographs and memorabilia, the entrance to which is to the left of the monument, at the Via di San Pietro in Carcere.

During the 1930’s, the Italian dictator, Mussolini, delivered his speeches to the populace from the terraces and balconies of this building.

The Victor Emmanuel Monument cannot be considered one of Rome’s most beautiful buildings and its stark whiteness does not fit well into the soft ochre color of the surrounding buildings.  Nevertheless, it is well worth the visit if only for the great views from the top (which is also connected to the Capitoline Square which may also be on your list).

A useful tip for visitors:  You will see lots of advertisements – everywhere – to buy tickets that “skip-the-queues” and indeed you do skip the line for tickets.  But unfortunately, after many years of this, the queue for the “skip-the-queue” line is much longer than the normal one to buy tickets at the office, so take my advice, ignore this (and ignore the touts who will offer you tickets for immediate entry), join the queue for tickets and you’ll be through in no time.

Next post:  Piazza Navona, The Pantheon, Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain.