Rome blog

Rome: From a Blind Person’s Perspective By Tony Giles Tonythetraveller Rome, is the capital city of Italy. Vatican City, residence of the Pope, is a walled enclave within Rome. Italy’s capital is an ancient area where the Roman Empire began 2,800 years ago. Notable archaeological buildings, such as the Colosseum, Pantheon and the Forum Romanum ruins, bared witness to the vast civilization that existed centuries ago. Vibrant modern day Rome is a reflection of its 14th-16th century renaissance period, illustrated by the crowded Piazza Navona, Piazza Popolo and Piazza di Spagna, plus the Piazza del Campidoglio, re-designed by Michelangelo. The famous Trevi fountain, designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and created by Nicola Salvi (1732), is another popular site for both tourists and locals. The 18th century Spanish Steps, by Italian architect Francisco de Sanctis, which lead to the lavishly designed French church Trinità dei Monti with magnificent views over Rome, is also another popular meeting place. The combination of stylish architectural extravagance, vast vociferous crowds and an important church, conjure a vivid picture of Rome, both during the renaissance and today.

However, what is the significance to a blind person? Indeed, even to someone daring to travel with sight loss?

The answers only become apparent once people realize that blind people might wish to travel or, in my case, journey frequently. I’ve spent the last thirteen years travelling solo around the world blind. This came from a desire to be independent and challenge myself. My girlfriend Tatiana, who I met through my website, is from Greece and is also totally blind. Since we both live in separate countries, we decided to meet in Rome for four days, as it is approximately half way between Greece and England. In addition, Tatiana is studying Italian and strongly desired to visit Rome.

On 18th July 2011, we met up in the arrivals area of Fiumicino (Leonardo da Vinci) airport. Rome has two international airports – the other is Ciampino. Most disabled people receive assistance when flying and are usually met at their destination. So, despite both Tatiana and I being blind, we found each other assisted by airport staff. They even helped us catch the airport train into Rome’s centre. A single ticket currently costs 14 Euros and the journey takes forty minutes. We discovered later that although the bus takes over an hour from the city to Fiumicino, a single ticket only cost 8 Euros.

I’d researched Rome’s attractions and hostel accommodations on the internet previously, with the help of a screen reading software called Jaws. Therefore, I roughly knew the directions to our reserved accommodation. We met an Australian couple on the train and they kindly assisted us to our hostel, as it was getting late and dark and there were many homeless and thieves loitering outside Termini train station. Once at the hostel, a second floor apartment up three flights of stairs and through several heavy doors, we settled in and asked directions to a nearby restaurant to sample Italy’s delicious cuisine. Tatiana and I both use long canes to negotiate streets, stairs and all other obstacles. We rely on the public, other travellers and hostel staff to help with directions to places and attractions. Travelling is a challenge which is often difficult, but most rewarding when successful.

Why do we travel? For the sounds, smells, food, music, historical interests we both share. But mainly to meet people and experience the culture.

The next morning we asked for directions to the nearest metro for the Colosseum, Rrome’s most famous building. We exited the hostel, turned left and walked along the uneven pavement until we found the first street on our left. We quickly discovered that Rome’s roads and pavements are uneven and many have cobbles, which caused problems for our canes. We asked directions for the nearest metro in both English and Italian and were eventually guided there by a local. Once inside, we stood still with our canes until someone asked us if we required a help “companion”. We stated our destination, and were taken to a staff member. Several escalators later, we’d descended into the bowels of the metro and were helped onto the correct train. Rome currently only has two metro lines, A and B (although line C is under construction). We both knew that the metro and buses would be busy and provided good opportunities for robbery, a common practice in Rome. We kept our valuables close and suffered no incidence. Tatiana counted the stations and listened to the Italian announcements.

At our stop, we pushed our way through the people and alighted. However, as I was stepping off, I slipped and my left leg went between the metro and the platform – a scary moment for both of us. It’s happened to me before and I’m used to incidences occurring having travelled for many years. But Tatiana is relatively new to the game and it frightened her. However, metro staff rescued me, assisted us out the station and gave us directions to the nearby Colosseum. Although I’m blind, I like taking photographs. So after refreshments at an adjacent café, we crossed the road by listening for the quiet of traffic and followed the sound of other pedestrians. Once across the road, we discovered a large cobbled open space, which I took for Colosseum Square. We were in direct sunlight, which meant we were away from the shadow of buildings. I asked a tourist for directions to Constantine’s Arch built (315 A.D.) located on Colosseum square, and another tourist helped me take a picture. We walked forward a few metres before turning right and followed the sound of more people. We enquired about the line for the Colosseum and were told to continue passed the people, many who’d been standing in the blazing sun for over two hours to buy tickets. Being blind enabled us to skip the line and enter the Colosseum. I showed my disabled bus pass and we were allowed free admittance and received a discount on the audio guide. It’s a hand-held device containing a tactile keypad.

We were taken to the start of the self-guided tour, physically shown the direction to go and informed to complete the audio tour in approximately two hours. We were left beside a stone column on its side near the entrance in a corridor like area underneath the amphitheatre. We briefly listened to the audio guide before going in search of our first location. With our audio guide and cane in one hand and our other linked together, we followed the corridor. I tapped the right hand wall with my cane until I found steps on my right. With confirmation from an American tourist, we ascended the flights of large steep steps, following them until they finished. Once up, we listened to the first commentary about the Colosseum. I took photos of the area, using the walls and pillars as a guide. The audio guide was somewhat confusing, as it gave no directions to each place relating to the commentary. Initially, I was unsure if we were on the correct level, and when we asked other tourists for the numbers relating to the audio guide, nobody understood our request. Eventually, we met a tourist with a map corresponding to the guide and the lady helped us to the next place.

The upper gallery gave views over the Colosseum’s arena where circus animal entertainment and gladiatorial contests occurred. The animals and gladiators were held in cages and brought into the arena through trap doors in the floor. These doors and underground tunnels are now visible. We continued following the audio guide and feeling the walls and ruins as we went. I showed Tatiana a huge column and she measured its circumference by walking around it. We located the panoramic terrace, which apparently gave good views towards the Roman forum, Constantines Arch and the ancient Temple of Venus and Roma. We learnt about the seat sectioning according to class with the carved names of important individuals still noticeable in the marble.

The Colosseum’s Construction began in 72 A.D. under Empiror Vespasian and was completed in 80 A.D. under Empiror Titus. It’s considered one of the greatest structures of Roman architecture and engineering. We enjoyed it for its size, rough textures of various building materials, such as stone, brick and marble, and absorbed the information, gaining an impression of the Colosseum at the height of roman imperialism. We briefly explored the lower level, assisted by a couple of staff members before exiting into the hot blazing sun and returning to the only café in the near vicinity.

Later, we visited the Trevi Fountain, one of Rome’s most famous attractions, full of atmosphere and people. We entered the Colosseo Metro and asked about a train to Trevi Fountain. A staff member informed us we needed a bus and took us to one outside the metro entrance. We told the bus driver our destination and hoped he’d remember as the bus was packed! It was early evening, around 7.00 pm. Two People gave us their seats and another local told us when to alight. However, we were dropped a few streets from the fountain in question. Tatiana asked in Italian and eventually we found someone who spoke both Italian and English. The lady helped us cross several streets and told us to continue walking straight, the most common advice we received in Rome! We finally arrived in a pedestrian street with many restaurants and continued asking for the Trevi Fountain. We reached a dead end, the street being blocked by a large van. A local man took us around a barrier and up to Trevi Square. Tatiana heard the fountain and we walked towards the noise. We pushed through the large crowd and moments later our canes hit a barrier and we were beside the Trevi Fountain.

We followed the voices of several tourists, descended a slight slope, carefully climbed down three irregular shaped stone steps and approached the large rectangular fountain. Tatiana and I sat on the small wall and dipped our fingers into the cool water. The fountain itself was in front of us and slightly to the right. I followed the small wall towards the fountain’s sound and asked a tourist to take our picture. An American guy described the fountain with ‘the restive sea horse’, a statue of Neptune in a sea shell chariot being pulled by two sea horses, one calm and the other restless, representing the changing moods of the sea. We sat on the small wall and relaxed in the company of the musical Trevi Fountain.

Later, we had dinner in the pedestrian street we had walked earlier. We shared a pizza topped with cheese, tomatoes, mushrooms and Italian sausage, washed down with lemonade, followed by the exquisite ice cream gelato in a nearby parlour. As we finished our meal, it began to rain – some people would have a wet meal that night! Restaurant tables are invariably outside and usually consist of wooden tables and chairs, the tables decorated with fine linen, candles and a rose – the Italians appear both friendly and romantic. It was extremely hot both day and night during our stay, hence dining in the open.

We returned to our hostel by bus, locating the bus stop with help from a delightful Irish couple. They were on their honeymoon and exploring Italy.

This is a brief account of the activities of two blind people exploring Rome. An interesting city, full of history, ruins, friendly and helpful Italians, good food and wonderful piazzas and fountains.

I’m currently 32 years old, live in Teignmouth, Devon, UK I’ve visited sixty countries, all 50 US States, 10 Canadian Provinces and every continent. My travel website is Facebook: Tony the Traveller My first travel book: Seeing the World My Way Published by Silverwood Originals Priced at £8.99 (paperback) and also as an e-book Available in UK book stores. I enjoy travelling, walking by the sea, dining with Tatiana, listening to classic rock music and reading historical fiction.

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  1. hi Tony. Don’t know if you remember me from RNC. I used to be Shelly Benbow but was recently married last September. My husband is called Alan and he is fully sighted. He is a funeral director in Chester. I am a Braille verifier in a transcription business and have been there since 2004. I have a guide dog called Fable but she is retiring on the 10th of April. I am currently reading your book in Braille from the RNIB library and am finding it extremely interesting. You have certainly lived life to the full. My parents have been to the falkland islands and watched the penguins. They’d be fascinated to see your videos. Anyway enjoy your future travels.

    Kind regards

    Shelly Roberts formerly Shelly Benbow

  2. Hi Anthony,

    Good to see you in Bristol, hope you managed to sell many books.
    Your blog on Rome sounds really interesting. I hope to visit one day with Jenny.
    Let me know if you are in the country on 22nd Dec.
    Keep up the good work!

    Cheers, Ben.