By John Phillips
Rome wasn’t built in a day, so visiting it on a day-trip didn’t seem to be in the spirit of things, either.
That was how Mrs Phillips and I found ourselves on the train to Naples from Sorrento rather than fork out £95 a head for 12 hours in a coach as our tour operator had suggested.
The idea was to see if we could spend less and still get to the Eternal City and back, plus a night there. What had swung the argument was the coach trip blurb which promised “most sights will be seen from the vehicle due to parking restrictions.” A pitstop in a piazza for a pizza appeared to be the only promise of real contact with the single most important streets in history.
Leaving Sorrento at all is a bit of a sacrilege in itself. The town hovers on the edge of cliffs between the Bay of Naples and the mountains behind, with its miles of stylish shopping along the Corso Italia and its dark and atmospheric medieval backstreets.
But Rome... well, being just three or four hours away was too much of a temptation. Plus, it was 34 years since I first sampled the delights of the pizza patate, or potato pizza, when I was a 12-year-old on a visit therewith my parents, and I had been banging on for 30 years of marriage to my long-suffering wife about how it was the king of Italian foods.
So here we were, rattling along in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius in what looked like a fair imitation of a 1970s New York underground train - graffiti is after all, an Italian word - which had a slightly incongruous air about it when it pulled up at the gates to Pompeii.
That’s another reason for roaming alone when near Rome: just four Euros gets you from Sorrento to the hauntingly beautiful remains of Pompeii, or just a little further along, to the even more complete, but smaller, Roman streets of Herculaneum, where so much more survived.
Trains in Italy are generally wonderful and on time, and the one to Rome from Naples was the classic compartment style, now lost to Britain.
Strangely, my hour-and-a-half of reminiscences during the second leg to Naples to Rome about pizza patate, designed to raise expectations and anticipation as we rattled along, did not seem to have the desired effect on Mrs P, who pointedly found the scenery and even the back of the train ticket more interesting.
Along the way, two Americans gave us tips on where to find a cheap, clean hotel, and on their advice we found just such a place five minutes from the Stazione Centrale , one of many on the Via Principe Amedeo, and a quarter of an hour’s walk from the Coliseum.
Rome was ours, and we could see it without pressing our noses against a coach window like some paupers window-shopping: we were there for real, with real sights, real shops and real prices we couldn’t afford.
Staying the night meant the Coliseum, the Forum, St Peter’s and the Vatican museums could each be visited with plenty of time to enjoy each in a city centre where all the best sights are pretty much within walking distance of each other.
None of them need any introduction, but a word of advice to anyone walking through the endless rooms and corridors to get to the Sistine Chapel: make the most of it. Many of the ceilings and murals you pass on the way are worth more than a cursory look, and some are, dare it be said, more interesting than the Chapel ceiling itself, especially the room with fascinating ancient mural maps of the Papal empire.
And the highlight was dinner in a shady alley between the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps.
“Ha!,” challenged the wife, who had spotted pizza patate on the menu. “I bet you don’t order it.”
This was too much for an Englishman, especially coming from the Wrexham-born Mrs P, whose only two meal orders in the city so far had been Szechuan king prawn the night before and now Greek salad. The phrase “When in Rome...” had obviously suffered during its translation into Welsh.
The pizza patate was ordered, and a certain competitive atmosphere could be detected during the wait for its arrival. First came the Greek salad, declared a triumph by Mrs P.
And then it arrived. Thin crust, a swirl of mozzarella and five slices of potato, roasted in olive oil and rosemary: the smell and taste of the Mediterranean countryside in the heart of the city.
Only a quarter of the pizza had disappeared when that moment every husband dreads arrived: his wife had decided to “swap” meals.
The richness of the pizza patate was exchanged for the poor substitute of a half-eaten Greek salad. A metaphor for Eurozone economics if ever there was one.
Was roaming on our own cheaper? Just about, if you only take into account fares totalling 90 Euros and 80 for the hotel.
Was it better value? Definitely, despite having to cough up for meals and entrance fees etc. At least entrance fees meant getting into things, not a fleeting glance from a bus.
Back home, I announced to my dear old mum that after a wait nearly four decades I had finally had my second pizza patate, and it had been delicious.
“That’s nice, dear.” she said. “Because you threw up after the first one.”