As I mentioned previously, the weekend of May 15th, I took a mileage run to Rome and brought a friend along from the travel meetup (http://www.meetup.com/nova-travelers).
It was simply phenomenal. Not only a cultural journey but a spiritual one as well.
All the pics are here in these two albums and I suggest you open them up in a separate window to peruse while reading along:
All the videos are here (look for the 4 labeled Rome):
We set off for Rome on Friday evening, arriving in the city Sat morning. This gave us 2 full days (Sat and Sun) in the streets of Rome before heading back to the States Monday afternoon. I know many of you think it's crazy to spend just a weekend overseas but my philosophy is solid. I can go to bed Fri night in my own bed like the rest of you go to sleep in your beds and wake up in Manassas, VA (*yawn*) or I can go to bed on the plane Fri night and wake up in Rome for the weekend. Seems like an easy decision when framed in that context doesn't it?
My usual strategy is to hop off the plane, refreshed from sleeping on the plane and begin my day with a burst of activity and that's exactly what we did. The flight over was rather uneventful. We flew Alitalia, a Delta skyteam partner and despite the rumors that it's a snap to get an upgrade to first class on a domestic ticket I found it impossible. The food was really good even in coach, so I wasn't too disappointed. We did find a source of great amusement in the numerous BA flight attendants gathering for a BA flight at the next gate over in Boston while we waited for our Alitalia flight to board. Dolled up in form fitting red suits with high heels and identical hairstyles (swept up bun) and makeup the ladies looked so familiar. Where had we seen them before? Aha! Anybody remember the Robert Palmer video for Addicted to Love? Give these BA agents guitars and you've recreated the scene. It was uncanny how similar the troupe looked. Perhaps Palmer got his inspiration for his girls after a BA flight - he was british right?
After arriving at FCO, we waited patiently for our speedy train to take us from the airport to downtown Rome and then enjoyed the ride into the city. The countryside between FCO and Rome reminds me a lot of California but speckled with the bright building colors of South Beach Miami.
The Termini station in Rome was a flurry of activity. Sexy Italians speaking Italian at every junction. I stepped off the train and immediately fell into the familiar vibe - amazingly Roman culture (at least as I perceived it) was similar to that of Manhattan. Bustling, laughing, stylish and trendy. With delicious Italian markets and food all over the place. They even have NY Style pizza (errrr I suppose NY has Roman style pizza).
It was just a short four block walk from the termini station to the Hotel Romae (http://hotelromae.com/en/) where we stayed. It was a great find and my hours spent pouring over hotel reviews when planning the trip proved fruitful. The hotel was lovely - a condo building that had been converted into 3 separate hotels with lobby offices on different floors. The staff was friendly, wifi was free and the antique elevator was an adventure with its narrow shaft and cast iron framework. The little basket of toiletries in the bathroom was adorable- they even gave us tiny facial sponges. (Actually, it turns out later when my roomate read the package carefully that those cutesy exfoliating facial sponges I used to wash my face were shoe shine scrubbies. Uh….)
After we put away our things, took in the view from our room, admired the complimentary fruit basket and stretched out for a few moments to rest it was time to venture out into the city. For the first day I planned an ambitious afternoon tour of Vatican City (important to go on Sat since it's closed Sunday) and then dinner and strolling in the heart of Rome across town. Hotel Romae is conveniently located on Via Palestro near the Cipro metro so it was easy to catch the subway to the neighborhood just outside of Vatican City. From there we grabbed a quick bite to eat (fresh pizza - delicious!) and walked to the Vatican and began our tour. We started with the Vatican museum. The place is phenomenal. So many pieces of prized art conveniently housed in one location. Greek and Roman sculpture, Egyptian art, gardens and more. (I hope you are looking at the pics just now in the other window. Are you?) I loved it all, but my favorite spots were the Egyptian mummies (very cool and reminded me of the bog bodies we saw in Dublin), the sculptures where the genitals had been covered by plaster fig leaves under a particularly modest Pope's direction, and the Sistine Chapel. The Sistine Chapel is just spectacular. I took pictures of it all to share with you. Which ones from the collection do you like the best? Be sure to take note of the really amazing 2-d painting that appears 3-d, maintaining the illusion until you get very very close to it in person.
Once we had made our way through the Vatican museum we entered St Peter's Basilica and the square. The building reverberates a sacred presence and it was a blessing to stand inside it. Pictures cannot really depict the enormity of the structure- the place is huge. I feel it's impossible to stand in a basilica such as this one and not engage in conversation with God. God who is so holy and mighty, see all who have come to worship you here. We were lucky enough to catch the tail end of mass (I recorded it and the link is below in the links to all the videos). I felt a tremendous sense of peace and belonging to stand in that place before God and I cried as I thanked God for loving me. Walking out of the basilica I read one simple plaque that brought deep sorrow and anger. Peter - this Peter whom the basilica is named in honor of and who is considered the first pope - stood up against the injustices of perverse and twisted worship. He spread the good news that God loves us and that only through grace (not works) are our sins forgiven. So what could bring such sorrow and anger here? Reading that the basilica was built using funds raised through the selling of indulgences (the forgiveness of sins via payments to the church). What a slap in the face to everything Peter lived and died for. To use those funds to build a basilica and then put his name on it as though he would be honored. It was sickening. We are so sick and sinful as a people.
We took the metro back to our hotel and rested for a bit before setting off again for dinner at Campo De' Fiori. Campo De' Fiori is one of the great squares of Rome. At its center is a statue of a heretic (Bruno) who was burned alive on the spot in 1600 (he preached that the earth revolved around the sun). The square is alive with tourists and shopkeepers in the evening. While dining at one of the hotspots on the square we saw a busy florists market, a mime, a unicycle riding juggler and a naked hottie who leaned out his window after getting out of the shower. The food was fantastic! I had a starter of Italian cheeses with fig jam (excellent combination) and then a main course of lamb while my travel roommate enjoyed the gnocchi. After dinner we walked to Piazza Navona, the site that was once a racetrack but now has been converted to a beautiful oblong square with a majestic fountain. We reveled for a bit in the scene and then hailed a taxi back to Hotel Romae where we promptly collapsed for the night.
Breakfast Sunday morning was a treat, especially as it was included in our room rate (another reason for you to book Hotel Romae). Served across the street at The Yellow Bar, we had our choice of breakfast items from a simple continental affair to a filling traditional breakfast with eggs and more.
After breakfast I planned to lead us on a full day of history touring in downtown Rome but the travel roommate wasn't too keen on the plan. She opted to stay in the hotel neighborhood while I went off by myself. It was a new feeling to explore a stranger city on my own. I felt really free to see whatever I wanted, stop whenever I wanted and eat and shop wherever I chose. I loved the bit of free/me time.
I set off for the Colosseum first. The famous Roman Colosseum - site of all the games. As I stood in line for tickets it occurred to me that my strategy of blending into European culture was working. I may not have looked like a Roman (too tall; too fat) but I wasn't pegged as an American with my pretty skirt and sandals. The beggars, tour hawkers and junk peddlers all made a beehive to pester the Americans in the long line. They were easily marked of course by their propensity to wear shorts and sneakers. I felt smug and superior to have outfoxed the intruders. I did have a few couples stop and ask me questions in French, so I can only assume I somehow gave off a French manner or appearance. I take that as a compliment!
Once I'd purchased tickets and entered the Colosseum my mood changed. I walked around the structure - an imposing and beautiful piece of architecture - and recalled the horrific events that took place there. The Christians fed to the lions, the other innocents brutalized, the animals killed. So much agony in one place, condoned by the patrons. As wave after wave of tourists passed me with their Colosseum t-shirts and magnets and other mementos I felt repulsed. Why is there a gift shop here? Would anyone put a gift shop at Auschwitz? Do people not really understand the gravity of what took place here? And there was a bride! A bride having a reception there in this house of death. Very sad to me. Rome was twice now the reminder of the depravity of man.
With a somber heart I left the Colosseum and proceeded across the street to the Forum. The forum was the heart of Rome…not in Italy but in Roman times. Most of the original Roman buildings were buried by weather and man over time and although the Italians knew they were there they never had the drive to uncover them. It's fascinating to me that they just left everything buried. Eventually it was all uncovered by archeologists and put on public display. The grounds and buildings are still impressive and I learned a lot on my self-guided tour, especially when I craned my neck to listen in on other tours being led. Did you know that the word 'Capitol' comes about to refer to the seat of governments simply because the Romans happened to build their seat of govt on a hill that was already named Capitol Hill? Fascinating. The Forum grounds held another sad monument to human disgrace- a majestic arch built to commemorate the last siege of Israel by the Romans. It depicts Roman soldiers carrying off Jewish menorahs and other cultural icons and was constructed under force by the Jewish slaves the Romans carried out of Judah in victory when they sacked the place. Very very sad. The Jewish slaves were also the laborers who built the Colosseum.
Once out of the forum I ascended steps toward the top of Capitol Hill to view the modern Capitol. As I climbed the stairs I saw a small sign advertising a prison and a nun standing outside. It piqued my interested so I ventured over to investigate and discovered it was none other than the famous prison where Paul and Peter were in chains. I walked down the spiral staircase to the dark and damp cellar where the marble column the disciples were chained to still stands. The tears began to flow again. This was a very emotional trip. I stood there and thought about what the disciples had endured for the sake of the Word and asked myself what I am willing to endure for God. Am I suffering enough for his sake?
Eyes still damp, I ascended into the light of the sunny Roman afternoon and continued my climb to the Capitol. I stood before it and let my eyes take in the beauty of the architecture before walking down the busy street on a search to find a good place to eat lunch. I found myself at a small café named Café Roma where the waiter told me I would find excellent French and Italian cuisine. I had the lunch special: lasagna. It was unlike any other formulation of lasagna I'd ever tasted- it was made with a béchamel sauce layered between sheets of pasta and meat sauce. So very good. A fusion of the French and Italian I guess. I'd love to have it again.
After lunch I headed for the Pantheon, stopping at several small shops along the way. I purchased some cutesy souvenirs and homemade pastas to take back to the States and chatted up the locals. Fun times! At the Pantheon I ran into yet another bride. This time I decided to take her picture. I'm going to start a new photo collection on facebook: brides around the world. Every vacation I go on I seem to run into brides. Brides and pigeons. I will take pictures of both. Yes, the album will be titled Brides and pigeons around the world.
I also passed a shop selling- get this - Duff beer. And the slogan was written exactly as it is on the Simpsons. So did the Simpsons rip off a foreign concept or did a foreign business rip off the Simpsons?
The Pantheon is just brilliant. First, all the columns were stolen from Egypt. Just like the French were fascinated with the Romans, the Romans were fascinated with Egypt and appropriated many of their belongings into Roman culture- especially their obelisks and columns. And I don't mean they stole the design, I mean they ripped the actual columns out of the ground and brought them to Rome. What was so much more fascinating about the Egyptians that out of all the lands they conquered the Romans most favored the Egyptian items? The Pantheon was a Roman temple dedicated to all of the Gods. Today, the most prominent God featured is Christ. It's a bit sickening to see tributes to Christ standing alongside idols fashioned for other faiths. Sort of reminds me of the Washington D.C. Cathedral and how they sell new age books in their bookstore and hold multi-faith sermons in their chapels. God would not be pleased; he's a jealous God.
I needed to get back to the hotel quickly after the Pantheon tour so I hopped on the city bus. Was that ever a mistake. My illusions of the appeal of strapping Italian men vanished as I stood among them. They may look pretty but they stink. I'm not sure whether they just bathe less often than Americans or whether they bathe as frequently as we do but don't wear deodorant. In any case…yuck. And on the bus of course all the men are courteously standing and holding the hand straps with their arms held high.
Once back at the hotel we opted to stroll down the block for dinner at Mama Angela's. The food was superb as we'd come to expect in Italy. The waitstaff was friendly. One of the waiters, while not particularly handsome, had the thin serious pose and body type of an Armani model. As the staff tried to lure us in with promises of great cuisine and delicious desserts I asked if we could have a picture with the Armani model for our dessert. But of course he said. We all laughed at my little joke. As we progressed through the dinner courses (see the pictures, they were so good!) we eventually came to the end of our meal and our waiter asked us if we were ready for dessert as it was included in our meal. I was about to say we wanted to take dessert back to our room for later, but I stopped and decided to see what dessert entailed first. Imagine my embarrassment when the waiter announced he would go get dessert and headed toward the front door, coming back with the Armani model look alike. Head bowed down in my hands I wanted to sink into the floor as the other patrons looked on. By God I was so grateful just then that I had *not* asked to take dessert home. He sauntered over to us, smiling ear to ear and posed with us for pictures. We paid the check and left.
Our last adventure for the evening was a long walk from the Piazza del Popolo to the Spanish steps and finally ending at Trevi fountain. I am pretty good at getting most of the major sights crammed into my itinerary in just a few days. We passed a lot of lovely shops along the way that I took pictures of (see album) and also fell into a lovel chapel that beckoned to us with delicate music emanating from its doors.
Monday morning we had another splendid breakfast at the Yellow Bar before dashing off to the train station, catching the train to FCO and boarding our plane for the states. We did not get in until very very late because our connection in NYC was delayed for several hours. Many passengers were tired and frustrated waiting for the plane to DC from NYC but I tried to keep focused on the great adventured that had just played out and was able to wait with a smile on my face.
Overall I give Rome 5 stars (I'm sure the Romans were waiting for that holding their breath in anticipation). There is fresh flowing water all over the city through public fountains (not at all like our drinking fountains, but actual fountains). I learned a little Italian (Did you know that Prego means "You're welcome" ? All this time my pasta sauce has been welcoming me everytime I open the pantry and I never knew it. Although there were often people around who spoke English, when they didn't I found they often spoke French so my lack of fluency in Italian did not crush me. I look forward to going back to Rome again and there are many other places in Italy I can't wait to visit.
It was also very neat to see the movie Angels and Demons just a few weeks later and being able to remember the feel of standing in most of the places the scenes were shot.