Sure, it would have been more SEO-friendly to call this post something like “24 hours in Rome”, but by the time I got there I had closer to two hours and 20 minutes.
So, what should you do when you find yourself in one of the world’s most beautiful, historical and fascinating cities with nothing like enough time to do it justice?
Why, go and seek out some cats, of course.
The Torre Argentina was once the site of four Roman temples and the Theatre of Pompey, where Julius Caesar was betrayed and stabbed by a conspiracy of men led by his friend Brutus. It is now home to around 150 stray cats who are looked after, fed, sterilised and often found forever homes thanks to the work of an army of volunteers – following in the spirit of the original gattare (‘cat ladies’) who have done so since the site was first excavated in 1929.
Rome is 132 miles from Sorrento, where we were staying again, and getting there takes at least two and a half hours over two trains. Of course, there are proper tours available for booking both in town and via your holiday company should you, you know, enjoy the enforced company of jovial strangers.
Trains between Naples and Rome are pretty regular but can be really expensive to catch on the day – particularly if you’re after an express option. The slower train took two hours 20 minutes and cost €26 each way but wasn’t bad: think air conditioning, assigned seats and chargers for your phone. The ‘Circumvesuviana’ from Sorrento to Naples, on the other hand, might just be the world’s worst train line (as well as being notorious for pickpocketing): it’s standing room only, at least until Pompeii; with accommodation straight out of the New York Subway of the 1980s and what as a Glaswegian I am obligated to refer to as ‘cooncil’ air conditioning (though opening windows does little good when you’re stuck between stations). It is, however, only €3.50 each way – making the express option well worth investigating next time.
PRO TIP: get off at Napoli Piazza Garibaldi, rather than staying on until the end of the route. The depressing-looking underground station is actually connected to Napoli Centrale, which is where you need to be for your train to rome. Not knowing this up front allowed me to explore a little of Naples, however – or at least discover a little pet shop, where I spent a good 10 minutes hanging out with and talking to some puppies.
The train takes you into Roma Termini, the city’s main train station (it’s actually named for the ‘thermae’, the ancient Baths of Diocletian, which were located across the street from the main entrance, rather than the end of the route). It’s centrally located, with good bus and Metro links, but after consulting both Google Maps and Fafa, my Roman oracle, by way of Whatsapp I decided I would walk to the cat sanctuary.
It was a good choice, as it meant I got to see plenty of Rome’s historical heart on the way – including, in the distance, the famous Colosseum.
I spent a fair chunk of time wandering around the Piazza Foro Traiano and Piazza Venezia, where I was so busy making sure that my handbag wouldn’t get stolen than I became the perfect foil for the hustlers who hang around the piazza – you know the type, who places an ugly bracelet on your wrist for “health and long life” as a “gift” because he likes your accent, then won’t let you leave without giving him €20 for his wife and new baby back in Kenya…
Anyway, here I had my fill of ancient ruins: the Temple of Minerva (97AD) and the Forum of Trajan (112AD), which as far as I could tell was an old courthouse. I also admired the ridiculously ostentatious National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II, first king of a united Italy; which I was bitterly disappointed to learn afterwards only dated back to the 19th century.
Round the corner and following the Via delle Botteghe Oscure to the Via di Torre Argentina – where it took me a while to figure out that the cat sanctuary was the sunken ruins in the middle of the road..! Like the rest of the ancient sites, you can’t travel into the ruins themselves – but you can peer down to watch cats sunning themselves among the pillars. Head downstairs and you’ll find a little office where cats wander in and out to get something to eat (and plenty of pets), a little gift shop selling all sorts of handmade items to raise money for their work and an indoor nursery/playroom where the cats can chill without annoyance from the public. At the back are large cages in which the recently-spayed kittens can gambol, recover and await adoption.
The sanctuary also runs an “adoption at a distance” scheme for those cats – the grizzly old men, the one-eyed jacks and the three-legged grey fluffball that was the favourite of the volunteer I met – who are the sanctuary’s permanent residents. It costs €15 a month, which is roughly the same as I donate to the Cats Protection League at home, but seems like a worthwhile contribution to some really great work.
I wanted to get some shopping done and find something delicious to eat to conclude my Roman adventure but, exhausted from the heat, I got the bus back to Termini where I found a Sephora and a McDonald’s. All that, and back to Sorrento in time to watch Celtic win their Champions League qualifier in the Irish bar and have an ice cream sundae in Bougainvillea next door – a perfect day.
Now, does anyone want a genuine elephant-printed cuff from Kenya? Only €20…