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Having been the capital of the greatest and most acquisitive empire in the ancient world, the home of the Catholic Church, and now the capital of Italy, Rome is a unique city, squeezing the relics of two millennia of civilisation within its boundaries. Here the ancient world bangs right up against the modern. The Roman Forum and the Pantheon rub shoulders with Baroque palazzo, and Renaissance villas sit alongside the brutal modernism of Mussolini's redesign of the capital. It's still a shock to drive along a busy Roman street and see the Colosseum - home to the sport and barbarism of Imperial Rome - rearing up in front of you.
And amidst all this history, a modern city lives, breathes and buzzes with life. Rome boasts terrific restaurants, pizzerias, trattorias, bars and clubs. There are chic designer stores, traditional street markets and, for such an affluent city and one so popular with tourists, blessedly unchanged areas such as Trastevere, where you can still find the old shops and trattorias popular with Romans themselves.
The origins of most cities are merely lost in the fog of the past, Rome's is shrouded in colourful myth. Twins Romulus and Remus, abandoned by their mother, were raised by a she-wolf. Growing to manhood under the protection of the gods, they laid out the boundaries of the new Rome on the Palatine Hill. They quarreled; Romulus slew Remus and became the first of six kings of Rome.
Sitting on hills at the crossing of the River Tiber, this was the obvious place to build a town. Rome grew rich under its monarchy, which ended when the tyrannical King Tarquinius was overthrown in 507BC. So began the Republic, a democracy, and a military power that by 146BC was the most powerful in the Mediterranean. By the second century AD, Rome ruled Europe and parts of the Middle East. The long slow decline saw the city sacked by Goths and Vandals, and by the sixth century the city was a near ruin.
The rebirth began with the establishment of the Papacy in Rome. St Peter, the first Pope, was martyred here; by the seventh century, Gregory I was sending Papal envoys all over Europe to spread the word - Rome was the hub of an empire once more. By the Renaissance, Rome was fabulously rich, with the ruling families swapping the Papacy back and forth among themselves. Artists of the calibre of Bramante, Raphael and Michelangelo found permanent employment decorating the city with their works, and the great Basilica of St Peter's was built. In 1527 the city was occupied by the Habsburgs, and in 1798 by Napoleon. Papal rule was restored, but by the mid-1800s Mazzini was declaring Rome a republic. Then in 1870, Garibaldi seized Rome. Like those before him, he saw the city as the keystone in controlling the Italian peninsula. And with a unified Italy at last, Garibaldi declared Rome its capital.
The point of all this history? That Rome is at Italy's heart. It is where the north and the south of the country meet, and here you will find a marvelous collision of the cultures of both, with the restaurants of the city reflecting the cuisine of all Italy. And for the visitor Rome displays a supreme collection of influences, from every immigrant culture that has come and been absorbed, and from every era of the past 2000 years.
What to see? Well you could spend a year here and not see everything, but there are some essentials. The Pantheon is the most complete remnant of ancient Rome, and the Colosseum probably the most recognisable to the visitor. The Forum, meanwhile, was at the centre of ancient Rome, and therefore the hub of the Mediterranean world. The Vatican is not simply a spiritual pilgrimage, its Museums house the largest and most diverse collection of art and sculpture on the planet. There are separate galleries dedicated to maps, tapestries, candelabra; there are the series of rooms decorated by Raphael; there are the Borgia Apartments, the Sistine Chapel, museums of classical sculpture, early Christian sarcophagi ... the list goes on.
There is the Piazza Navona, the most beautiful square in the capital, and you must see the Capitoline Museums, home to some of Rome's best ancient art and sculpture. Renaissance buildings cluster around the historic centre between the Via del Corso and the River Tiber. Then there is the romantic Rome of the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps, of the Dolce Vita immortalised by film director Fellini, when Cool Italia meant cappuccinos, scooters and a pleasure-seeking new Italy emerging from the shadows of war.
The key is to plan your stay. Just as attempting to see everything in the Vatican Museums will end in disappointment and exhaustion, so you have to be selective about the city. Get yourself a good tourist guide, visit the tourist offices, and buy one of the weekly or fortnightly 'what's on' guides and you'll be well on your way. Transport into Rome is excellent, with two airports, and getting around the city is easy, with a good metro and bus service. You can journey out into Rome's home region of Lazio, with the remains at Tivoli and Viterbo, or the seaside of Anzio, being well worth a visit.