Rome, Part IV: Holy extortion, Batman…Is it time for lunch?

Read from the beginning: [Rome, Part I] [Rome, Part II] [Rome, Part III]

Day 5: So we set out early today, and walk the familiar streets across the Forum, over the river and through the…Not Throngs! We arrive at the Vatican before 9am and are greeted by an early morning glow in St. Peter’s Square. It’s so much more peaceful here without the hordes, where you can actually see the square. But it’s a strategic decision, because one cannot get to the Vatican Museum (and Sistine Chapel) directly from the Basilica, so it was a choice to either start here or there and then stand in line for the other.

The cathedral is spectacular: it’s an opulent display of the Church’s wealth and stature, and the artwork is stunning even to this heathen’s eyes (involuntarily hoping I won’t burst into flames in the center of the room; that would be both messy and embarrassing, and my companion would not be amused. Or maybe he would 😉).

There’s an admission fee to get in to see the Basilica’s Duomo, which feels inherently wrong to me. A devotee to what is essentially the best-funded religious organisation on the planet makes a pilgrimage to the Holy See and still has to pay to see all of it. Fact: you can pay 2€ less if you “walk” (it’s 500 steep, narrow, windy marble steps; you save 100 steps per € or so if you ride the elevator part-way up). Another fact: it was designed by Michelangelo, who had a hand in a lot of the artwork here, the Pietà and the walls and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for starters.

I’m a visitor, and not remotely Catholic, so I don’t exactly mind the fee, but there are a thousand other churches in Rome, some equally beautiful, that one can just wander into without a queue or the purchase of an E ticket. That said, the view from the top is stunning: you can see the entire city on this crisp, clear morning.

Next stop: the Vatican Museum. It’s barely 10:30 when we arrive, and the line is already around the corner. So the choice becomes whether to wait the 2+ hours in the queue or pay one of the hustlers on the street for a “skip the line” pass and walk in. We cave to temptation and are shuffled, first to the ticket office, then to the front of the line (to get to the other line to enter the museum). It all seems like a grand scheme to extort € from tourists, but this being our last full day, we don’t want to spend it waiting. Until we get inside and realise we’re packed into the halls, surrounded by tour groups from a multitude of lands, each guide sporting a pom-pom on a stick and shepherding their lot through the galleries. Oh, the imagery.

It is, as they say, what it is: we flow with the crowd through the different halls (Raphael’s Philosophy mural, School of Athens, blows my mind: Aristotle and Plato and a cameo by Raphael himself in vibrant hues – incredibly preserved since the 14th Century!), from here through the tapestry-lined hallways and to the Sistine Chapel. As we wander, it strikes me as ironic that the Church has plastered and painted fig leaves on many of the works.

I had expected a chapel, not a grand ballroom filled wall-to-wall with bodies, necks craned to take in the masterpieces that surround. It’s here I learn that Michelangelo poked a little fun at the Church in painting The Creation of Adam. It turns out that he hid a perfect anatomical model of the human brain in plain sight in this painting.

After the Sistine Chapel, the crowds seem to thin. The map room is amazing, as are the little sculptures and artifacts that dot the halls. The stairway itself is a work of art. We exit into the blue-skied Roman day, satisfied that our ransom was (mostly) worth the price.

All that art-gazing makes a tourist hungry. So it’s to another landmark of sorts: the birthplace of fettuccine Alfredo. On an unobtrusive side street sits Alfredo alla Scrofa who claim to have invented the iconic dish. We sit, order, then heed the waiter’s instructions to eat it hot! This is some of the best pasta I’ve ever had…it does not disappoint!

We wend our way back towards the Forum, passing by the Pantheon again (and into, this time). It is only after-the-fact that I learn that one of the statues inside is an early Michelangelo (Christ the Redeemer), sans foule, sans admission fee, at eye-level! This city is incredible.

We’d planned to take in the late afternoon atop Palatine Hill. But it can’t be accessed without a ticket, which for some reason entails waiting in the obscene line for the Colosseum (or paying another ransom); so instead, we take a suggestion from a friend and walk up to the Piazza Caffarelli, and admire the views over the Teatro Marcello and Portico di Ottavia, and towards the 12 other palaces that dot the skyline in that direction…their domes magical in the golden light.

Quick trips have a way of leaving you wanting more. And this Eternal City escape is no different. We walked more than two marathons this week and saw dozens and dozens (if not hundreds) of centuries-old wonders, ate fantastic food and drank local wine. My head hits the pillow this last night, prosecco-filled dreams of Roman gods and cobbled ways.


Epilogue: Homeward, revelations, intentions, Rome-ance…

The tip of Corsica as we leave…

I sit, stuffed into a window seat, on a chatty day flight home through Philadelphia. I’m already cringing at the loud, sharp, nasal ‘Merkin accents that abound, and think about the New Year’s Eve conversation about goals and intentions.

There’s the writing: publish the damn thing already. And the travelling: whale sharks and mantas and lemurs (and of course the elephants), far-flung forests and daunting peaks are all calling. And the living: it’s time to figure out where I fit, and on what continent. Big shifts happen about every 7 years, so it’s time…and so we’ll see.

A friend asked me if Rome was Rome-antic. I ponder this, having spent the week here with a human who sits firmly in my heart. Sure, there are long-stemmed roses on offer and cobbled-street strolls and prosecco toasts and the effect of the city’s magical light. The word romance comes from (the Old French romanz which comes from) the Latin romanicus, which, of course, means Roman. But Rome is a city built of passion and hubris. The heart leading the head (and body) into battle for Empirical supremacy, its buildings erected in fervent tribute to the Pagan gods and Roman leaders who were exulted as gods, said edifices desecrated and re-dedicated to those that served the hearts (and bellies) of the people over the millennia. Art is love, and this city is swathed in it. We see tributes to Jupiter and Juno, Minerva, Neptune and Venus, dotting the Piazzi and adorning the bridges over the Tiber. The river itself is named for the god Tibernius, credited with finding Romulus and Remus, whose story is where myth borrows magic and becomes history. We see temples to Roman gods turned into Christian places of worship, layering historical fact and folklore upon architectural wonders. Myths and legends, these stories weave their way from the heart to the head and to the hands and bodies of Romans who carved chronicles of their gods and Emperors and war heroes in marble throughout the city, preserving them eternally in the fountains and structures across Rome.

So, yes.

The Eternal City only stays as such if it is held in the heart. The heart only stays true if you choose it over the head and the body.


Read from the beginning: [Rome, Part I] [Rome, Part II] [Rome, Part III]

When in Rome: Part III, Traversing Trastevere and unsung Roman wonders

Day 4: The next morn, we set out for (quite literally) the bowels of the city. Atlas Obscura had pointed us (albeit vaguely) towards what is one of the oldest sewer systems in the world. Turns out, in the 6th Century BC, the Cloaca Maxima was how they (also literally) drained the swamp that was to be the grounds of the Roman Forum, and C was keen on seeing this engineering marvel. We followed squidgy directions, and finally, over bridges and down lesser-used stone stairways, found what amounted to a hole in a hole in the banks of the river, next to which was someone’s makeshift camp. On the bright side, the detour took us past the weirdly popular Mouth of Truth (say a lie in its presence and it will bite your hand off), and also enabled us to see the Tiber from a different perspective, taking us to a part of the city that didn’t have throngs of people milling about and queuing up to see just about anything.

View from below, as it were…

Over the bridge and through the charming quarter of Trastevere, with its vine-clad buildings and the narrow, cobbled streets I adore. This is the way I like to see a city, wandering without a specific agenda and bumping into authentic local wonders.

There’s poetry and tragedy and comic relief plastered throughout the city in its street art. And we stumble upon an old church that incorporated ancient Roman graffiti into its façade. It’s little marvels like this that impress me as much as the one we would stand in queue for the following day.

During this day of wandering, we come upon the Palazzo Spada, an almost nondescript palace tucked into an unobtrusive side street, where we encounter a small wonder called Borromini’s Perspective. We walk into a courtyard (the sculptures of which are a wonder in their own right), which contains a window to an optical illusion – a corridor has been built, at the end of which stands a statue. The statue is a mere 60cm (or 2’) tall, and the corridor is a mere 8metres long. By the magic of mathematics and architecture, the perspective looks like a regal gallery many metres longer…the distance between me and the couple in the photo below is in fact greater than the distance between them and the statue.

From here, we return to the Forum, where we’d hoped to get a sunset view from Palatine Hill. Little did we know that only a fraction of the hill was accessible sans billet, as it were, and that the rest of the site closed at 3:30 – a good hour and a half before sunset. Another place added to the next day’s itinerary.

Skirting the crowds, we find a spot to gain some perspective from above and it’s here that we stop to marvel at the site (sic) of so many structures that formed the center of ancient Rome; the Colosseum, perhaps the most famous structure in this now-modern city, is but a tiny dot in the background.

I can see how one becomes inured to these wonders, and how easy it would be to take for granted these things, though magical and important to new eyes, they can become near-boring on one’s daily run to the store for milk and bread.

And life is like that, I think, as we toast with (massive!) flutes of limoncello to the marvels around us, the majestic Colosseum quietly looming across the way and chatty Italian millennials snapchatting and tittering at the table behind us. We see what we take time to observe, we undervalue what is easily at our fingertips, only maybe revelling in gratitude upon reflection.


We’ve wandered more than a half-marathon’s worth of steps today and the cobblestones seem to wobble more on this walk back to the B&B (it could, perhaps, have been the limoncello), the Colosseum seems to glow brighter, the crisp Roman night seems to embrace us as we wander through the Forum, clip-clop of horse-drawn chariots (erm, carriages) resonating in the night.

Tomorrow, we visit The Vatican.

Read more When in Rome: [Rome, Part I] [Rome, Part II]

When in Rome, Part I: Arrival, Wandering, and New Year’s Eve

Day 1: Arrival and the beginning of a mini-adventure, in which I meander from Termini (station) to Forum (B&B), arrive in awe of the sheer magnitude of the architecture, and wander about the crowded streets that divide the Fora and lead the throngs to and from the Colosseum.

The evening before, I had boarded a British Airways 747, my frequent flyer miles and some manipulation of schedules landing me in a Business Class seat. A multi-pronged luxury it was, as the past 3 months had been a whirlwind of work and little sleep, resulting in an unintentional avoidance of adulting, and a lack of attention to detail on the home front. When you get home, you’ll have to deal with it all, a somewhat-envious inner voice reminds. That noted, I feel only a bit guilty at the indulgence and glad to leave the gray December New England skies behind if only for a few days.

I arrive groggy, from both a short night’s sleep and more than enough vino plied by the nice airline folk. A Roman day with its crisp and clear blue sky greets me, tho; the relative warmth already seeping into my pores.

Arrival is always a little overwhelming; not knowing the way, the landmarks, the language… It’s mid-afternoon on New Year’s Eve eve, my first time in Rome and I’m still semi-embarrassed because it’s a rather frivolous way to end one year and herald in the next. I’m here a day early to shake jetlag and get my sea legs before I meet my co-hedonist. I navigate the uneven Roman streets from Termini station towards my B&B, thankful for Google Maps to guide me because I’m too frugal (read: aghast) to pay the 60€ for a car from the airport. This is a marginally longer commute, but I rather like walking and it’s a nice way to get immediately immersed in a new place on arrival.

I’ve been warned enough of the pickpockets here from the travel blogs I’ve read and all the signage everywhere… Is it such a rampant problem, I wonder, or are they just stoking visitors’ anxiety around being in a Foreign Place? Foreign, being a relative term, as it looks more foreign to me than it actually feels. Decidedly European, I decide on first impression; confirmedly ancient, I then observe, as the Colosseum leaps into view when I turn a corner towards my hotel. There it looms, large and impressive at the end of the via. Another corner, and 3 columns of one of the Fora materialise at the end of the street. Cobbled steps, a fountain (one of hundreds that are scattered throughout the city) flowing with clean, fresh water. 10 more metres and I’m at the B&B, where I see my first ruin up close.

I arrive also without much of an itinerary, save a map I’ve bodged together to mark recommendations from friends and sites that look too good to miss. It’s in the spirit of getting the lay of the land that I set out to wander the neighbourhood to keep occupied and awake enough until proper bedtime*.

Real first impressions: it’s crowded, where crowded is an understatement. I start the journey a little off-put if I’m honest. I don’t want to spend our precious days here waiting in line alongside tour groups. I chalk up the looming mood to cranky, hungry, tired, travel-weariness. But the sites so far are breathtaking: the Colosseum at dusk, the Foro di Augusto glowing in the evening’s light; the Roman Forum across the way; the 35-metre tall Colonna Traiana, with its comic book-looking depiction of the wars between the Romans and Dacians spiralling up its length; the magnificent Typewriter building, the Altare della Patria, whose imposing stature dwarfs the other wonders in this area.** Non male, as they say, for the first few hours…tomorrow, I explore!


Throngs and wonders, a big dome with a hole in it, a creepy crypt, and things that go ka-boom in the night

Day 2: Before C arrives, I’ve got about 5 hours to see some of the sites I’ve plotted on my map. First, it’s the Pantheon – not to be confused with the Parthenon (Athens) or the Panthéon (Paris)! 😂

Like many monuments, the Pantheon is a former Roman temple that now serves as a church (I take a heathenistic moment to ponder whether there are enough congregants for the astounding number of churches in this city). One of the factoids I’ll learn this week is that the dome of the Pantheon is the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. The astounding fact to me, tho, is that it was built in 126AD and still in pristine condition! And as if to out-do all other fountains I’ll see here, the one in the Piazza della Rotunda is a wonder in its own right.

Speaking of fountains: toss a coin over your (left) shoulder (with your right hand) into the Trevi Fountain, and it will ensure a return trip to Rome (more coins assure both romance and marriage). And over 1m € per year are thus tossed. I’ve read that the €s go to the needy. I’m not hard pressed to fling coins, but I’m pressed hard as I squirm my way to the fountain’s edge, disenchanted by the throngs by the time I’m down there.

There’s always an elephant…

On the way to the Pantheon, though, I passed a man playing what I surmise is a hammered dulcimer. He’s set up in front of an elephant bearing an obelisk that sits in front a nondescript church. It’s the little wonders, I remind myself, and not necessarily the big attractions that are some of the most memorable.

After Trevi, I find I’ve still got time, so I head towards the Spanish Steps (when in Rome…). These 174 steps run from the Bourbon Spanish Embassy to the the Trinità dei Monti church and are the darling of many a famous movie and song. More fountains; ditto, the throngs: it’s because of the latter that one cannot see any actual steps, and for just a moment I wonder if I’ve mis-stepped in coming here.

What steps? But a nice view from the top!

Fleeing the masses, I point my GPS in the direction of an Atlas Obscura oddity: the Santa Maria della Concezione Crypts, or the Crypts of the Capuchin Friars. This ossuary rivals that of the Catacombs in Paris; what it lacks in grandeur it makes up for in creativity. Suffice to say that the artiste took creative liberties in arranging not only the stacks of bones (some 4000 skeletons are (dis)assembled here), but also the various bodies in repose (fully-frocked Friars) and flight (child-sized bodies looking down from the ceiling; skulls with scapula-wings). The walls and ceilings were covered in mandalas and chandeliers, each surface laden with myriad symmetrical designs, all made from individual bones and carefully arranged in gruesome patterns that affected something of a moribund paint-by-number display.

As I wend my way back, I stumble across the We Run Rome road race and flash a 2019 goal to do a 10k (we’ll see!). But first, it’s Pizza for lunch, a trip to a local wine and cheese shop for aperitivo supplies and then back to the B&B to get ready for New Year’s festivities.


Ringing in the New Year, Roman style!

Italians eat dinner late. So an 8:30 dinner is on the early side, but we’ve managed to find some fantastic melanzane parmigiana at a little local place in the piazza near the B&B. New Year’s Eve, thus far: Prosecco and Parmigiana. Next stop, Pyrotechnics.

I’m not a fan of huge crowds or wild New Year’s Eve parties. But since it’s my first in a European city, la Fiesta di Roma is on the docket. It takes place in Circo Massimo (Circus Maximus), the grand sports stadium where they once held chariot races and Ludi, festivals for the gods. In its day, the capacity was 250,000. Tonight, I’d estimate there’s 50,000+ modern Romans. We listen to the weird music, watch the bizarre dance and aerial show (a tribute to the ludi of yore?) and ooh and ahh over the fireworks display over the ruins of the Palatine palace. It may be the most dramatic setting for fireworks I’ve ever seen.

The festival goes for 24 hours, but 2am feels like we’ve been up for a week. We make it long enough to purchase a bottle of bubbly from a street vendor (C’s post-midnight haggling is impressive!) and toast to goals and future adventures.

The finale of the NYE fireworks at Circus Maximus, Rome

Happy New Year!  Read more: [Rome, Part II] [Rome, Part III]

*Jet lag avoidance tip #1: when travelling East, stay up as long as possible the day you arrive, so you go to bed at proper local bedtime in an attempt to fool your body into waking up at a moderately human hour the next morn.

**Among other nicknames for the monstrosity are la dentiera (the dentures, in reference to its white marble in stark contrast to its surroundings) and la torta nuziale (the wedding cake).