Rome’s ongoing heatwave may feel near intolerable when confronting the city’s ancient centre and its morass of sweating tourists, but the high likelihood of clear, dry skies and toasty night-time temperatures does at least mean the coming weeks make the perfect time to rediscover the Roman Forum. The centre of ancient Rome and long a highlight of visits to the city, the site until mid-November hosts an exceptionally sophisticated sound and light show that each night fleetingly recreates the staggering temples and palaces suggested by the marooned boulders and clusters of columns scattered across the complex, and in so doing brings to life the remarkable events that occurred in its ancient plazas, marketplaces and courts.
I came across the show quite by accident, when an evening stroll to the Colosseum led me past a grandstand packed with headphone-wearing crowds seemingly enraptured by cascades of light beamed upon piles of rubble and pockmarked walls. Placing a spotlight onto perhaps an ostensibly insignificant pile of rocks or a stone step worn smooth, projections expand – using existing boundary walls and columns as a canvas — to recreate through coloured light the incredible monuments, governmental buildings and statues that stood in these exact spots so many centuries ago.
An aerial view of ancient Rome, projected during the sound and light show onto a section of the Roman Forum CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES
Increasingly sophisticated shows have been held on this site since 2014, when a display was inaugurated to celebrate the 2000th anniversary of Augustus’s death, and seeing such unexpected architectural marvels unfurl before you, as a narrator explains the buildings’ significance and the incredible events that occurred therein, provided one of the most immersive, gripping educational experiences I’ve ever had on holiday. It is an unforgettable way to learn about the city’s incomparable history.
A projection recreates the long-gone statues that would have stood in this setting in 2BC CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES
This year there are two shows running – The Forum of Caesar sees visitors wander through the Forum to explore Caesar’s vast and complex legacy; The Forum of Augustus examines the contribution made by Augustus to the might of the Roman Empire and to Rome itself – and to anyone with even a general interest in these periods it’s worth visiting both. Parents keen to endow their children with an appreciation of history could well induce a lifetime’s interest with an evening here.
The unexpected highlight (pun unintended) of my visit to the Eternal City, the show adds yet another cultural imperative to visitors’ itinerary. Already familiar with many of the city’s main sights, on this occasion I also made a concerted effort to explore the remainder of the Roman landmarks still unknown to me and so booked a tour of the Vatican with Italy With Us. A Rome-based operator that organises group and private tours throughout Italy, its 8am exclusive Vatican tours promise clients access to the Vatican Museum – and a head start on reaching the Sistine Chapel – before the doors open to the public at 9am.
The Sistine Chapel CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES
It isn’t a stress-free experience, however. Although we beat walk-in visitors, several competing companies offer early access to their customers as well and the attraction’s incredible popularity meant we were still part of a harried, clammy milieu clamouring to see Michelangelo’s masterpiece before even more people arrived and the sweltering heat defeated us completely. Already booked out at the time of my visit but much more comfortable for its participants, the company’s €350-per-person after-hours Vatican tours provide Italy With Us clients with entirely exclusive access to the museum and give this intimate group the opportunity to have its marvels to themselves. They can be, as my colleague Nick Trend experienced, be alone with Michelangelo.
Ancient sculptures and industrial machinery at Centrale Montemartini museum CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES
I instead enlisted the company to take me to a less obvious corner of the city and was so led to Centrale Montemartini, an art deco-style, century-old power plant that ceased operations in 1963 and subsequently opened as a museum. Today its hub, still cluttered with hulking turbines and decommissioned engines, holds ancient marble statues from the collection of the prestigious Capitoline Museums and an adjacent chamber displays an almost entirely intact 4th-century mosaic depicting hunting scenes. The exhibits are fascinating and the setting – like a miniature Tate Modern but with its industrial machinery still intact – unexpectedly atmospheric, but what really sets this address apart is its lack of international recognition and the refreshing dearth of crowds. We followed our tour with a visit to a nearby Eataly. Known internationally since the opening of its Manhattan outpost, the department store sells exceptional Italian produce and epicureans could easily lose an afternoon sampling stallholders’ wares and perusing the goods on sale.
A Roman apartment available to book through onefinestay
And though much of Rome remains as it was centuries ago, there is now an alternative accommodation option awaiting visitors who want to look beyond the city’s strangely limited collection of luxury hotels. A more upmarket, selective rival to AirBnB, onefinestay was last year purchased by Accor Hotels and last summer expanded its portfolio (then already well-established in London, Paris, New York and Los Angeles) to include a range of properties in Rome.
My rooftop apartment, on a quiet side street that housed a number of chapels and (set in a former jail) Italy’s anti-mafia commission, provided another welcome, authentic escape from the throngs of tourists despite being only a 10-minute walk from the Vatican. Pottering about alongside locals; lingering over simple, perfect pasta at a local trattoria; stopping repeatedly for phenomenally good gelato: all of those I’m-on-holiday-in-Italy clichés were so conveniently, satisfactorily laid out before me — and without the distasteful premium that some more dishonourable proprietors have been known to add at tourist hot spots.
The spacious living area of a onefinestay Roman apartment
There was one clear disadvantage to taking an apartment in the city and attempting to live like a local, however. Naively I had thought the home’s electric fans would suffice in place of air-conditioning. They were of course incapable of combating the oppressive, ceaseless heat that soaked the city day and night; unfractured, restful sleep was impossible throughout my stay. A shrewd move, I thought, of the owners to presumably deflect to the seaside during the hottest weeks and make the home available for rental instead.
Tickets for The Forum of Augustus or The Forum of Caesar cost €15 apiece; combined tickets cost €25.
Private tours of Rome, and beyond, can be arranged by Italy With Us. The company’s 8am VIP tours, commencing an hour before the museum opens to the general public but accepts other tour groups, costs €60. Guided tours of Centrale Montemartini can be arranged on application.
Onefinestay properties in Rome start from £135 per night.