8/20/12 - 8/23/12 98 °F
While Rome is a huge city, most of the ancient sites, many attractions and Vatican City are pretty centrally located; and perfectly situated smack dab in the middle of this was our hotel: the Hotel Campo De Fiori. But first we had to get there. We had heard horror stories of the drivers in Rome, and I recalled my own experiences from years earlier. Scooters pay absolutely no attention to lane lines or traffic signals. Cars are barely better, considering all traffic rules to be mere suggestions. Everyone goes wherever and whenever they want. A tourist's biggest danger is in crossing the street. Not to mention lack of public parking and roads restricted to residents only. So it was with this information that we decided to park our car at an outlying train station, and take a bus into the heart of the city.
And so began our introduction to the very confusing bus system of Rome. Throughout our stay in this city we were confounded by which bus went where and what the schedule was. We couldn't find a decent bus map, just lists of bus stops and bus numbers, which you had to cross-reference to figure out how to get where you wanted to go. It was only on our last day that we discovered a very useful website, the official Rome bus site, where you enter where you are and where you want to go, and it lists the busses, trams, the little eletricco mini-busses, transfers, etc. that you need to take. That would have been useful earlier on. Lesson learned.
Our hotel was charmingly old-fashioned, had a very friendly and helpful front desk man, Gabrielle (yes, that's a man's name in Italy), and as mentioned, was centrally located and had a wonderful roof top terrace where we sat at sunset each evening with a glass of wine watching the church domes turn golden, and listening to the church bells go off all around the city. With over 350 churches, that's a lot of bells! And with the rule that no building in Rome can be built higher than the dome of St. Peter's, we could easily see the huge dome of the Vatican just across the river Tiber.
Our first full day of sightseeing was centered on "Ancient" Rome. Our time machine whisked us away to learn about the rise of Rome, lasting about 500 years from 500BC to 1 AD; the peak of Rome lasting about 200 years, from about 1 AD to 200AD, and seeing the transition from a republic to an imperial empire with the rise of the Caesars; and then the transition from a pagan empire to a Christian one (about 300AD), and the long slow decline of Rome for 300 years to the ultimate fall of Rome about 500AD. We toured the Colosseum, imagining the "entertainment" of the day with gladiator battles, mock wars, plays, wild animal battles, the deaths of Christians (before it became the official religion of Rome), etc. We toured Palatine Hill (where we get the word "palace" from, it was the original Caesar's Palace -- no slot machines here, though) with its ruins overlooking Circus Maximus, a huge chariot racetrack that once held 250,000 people. We walked the streets of the Roman Forum, the political center of ancient Rome, seeing the huge ruins of the Basilica of Constantine (the mammoth halls of justice -- even then, the lawyers had lavish digs); the temple of Julius Caesar (the only thing left really is a monument to his death, still with flowers left on it by modern visitors - "Et tu, Brute?"); another surprisingly well preserved temple; the temple and house of the 6 Vestal Virgins, where they served their 30 year term if they could maintain their vow of chastity -- if not, they were given a loaf of bread and a lamp, led to a crypt and buried alive - a fate many of them suffered; the Senate building (also surprisingly well preserved); and several other ruins and monumental arches. As we walked it helped to imagine the other tourists walking about as if they were wearing togas, and to "fill in" the missing parts of the buildings. You could imagine Roman generals returning from their conquests, riding their chariots through the streets, listening to the cheering crowds as they delivered their spoils of war to the steps of the Treasury.
By the end of the very, very hot day we were absolutely exhausted and "ruined" out. As we continued through the more modern sections of Rome, we would come across towering columns or an ancient building's facade, and just say: "more ruins", "oh, more ruins", "oh, look, more ruins". Rome is basically a layer cake, with layers of civilizations built on layers of previous civilizations. Everywhere you look is evidence of its ancient history, and why it has truly earned its moniker: the Eternal City.
One modern monument that looks ancient, except that it is shiny, white and not falling apart, is the Victor Emmanuelle Monument, erected to celebrate the unification of Italy as one nation around 1880. It actually helps you envision what ancient Rome looked like, as all the buildings back then, including the enormous Colisseum, were faced with the same shiny white marble (which has long since been looted, much for Christian churches).
The next day started with a short walk to the Pantheon, the best preserved building from the time of ancient Rome. It has a huge dome, that was the inspiration a thousand years later for the Duomo in Florence, the dome of St. Peters in Vatican City, and even our own U.S. Capitol building. It is incredible to think how they achieved such mathematically perfect dimensions without computers or CAD design or modern building techniques and materials. Even while contemplating the perfection of the dome, it was interesting to note that the outside columns making up the portico which were quarried in Egypt, were made too short, and they had to redesign the front facade because of this error. So much for mathematical perfection. We commented that we would love to be there during a torrential rain storm, and watch the rain pour in through the central open "oculus", a circular opening in the top of the dome, 30 ft. across, and watch the column of water crash onto the 1800 year old marble floor, and run outwards to the built-in drain holes circling the round temple. That would be cool!
The afternoon was devoted to Vatican City, starting with it's huge St. Peter's square (which is actually elliptical) surrounded by 284 columns, topped with statues of 140 saints, and centered with an ancient Egyptian obelisk. At the end of this open-armed arcade sits St. Peter's Basilica. But first we had to make our appointment time to see the Vatican Museum lying at the other end of this tiniest of independent countries.
The Museum recapitulates about 5,000 years of history, starting in ancient Egypt with mummies and and stiff-armed statues of pharaohs and animal gods, working its way through Etruscan times and the Greek and Roman worlds with beautiful sculptures of the human form, then showing lots of "flat" Middle Age religious art, and into the Renaissance and the rebirth of humanism. There is a long hallway (1/4 mile long) filled with statues, showing the naked human form in all it's glory. Well, it's supposed to... except during the counter-reformation (1550-1800), the church discovered that man has genitals (who knew?), and that his privates should remain so. So, they created little plaster fig leaves, and covered up all the shiny marble penises with rough, matte, ill-fitting fig leaves. Truly horrible and tasteless. At least they left most of the male parts intact, unlike in Florence, where most of the members were knocked off. They really need to remove the tacky plaster pasties and return the statues to their original, noble artistic form.
The culmination of the Vatican Museum tour ends in the newly restored Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo's amazing vision now appears almost as if painted yesterday. Having visited this same place 25 years ago, when the restoration was barely getting started, and it was either dull and soot covered or hidden by scaffolding, this site was a new revelation! Holy crap! The colors are so vivid and bright. You are totally amazed and overcome by both the sheer size of the ceiling and end wall, and the execution of the work. Michelangelo managed to tell the whole Bible story from Genesis to the final Judgment through multiple panels. It is impossible to describe. You just have to see it to believe it!
After finishing gawking at the amazing Sistine Chapel, we took a short cut into St. Peter's Basilica, and we're once again amazed at the sheer size and majesty of it. It is built to make it look it smaller than it actually is, but it still looks immense. Cherubs adorning columns are 10' tall. Two statues of Mary appear one over the top of the other. The top one is actually twice as high as the bottom one, but appear to be the same size due to the distance from eye level. The central altar with black corkscrew columns with gilded ornamentation are 40' tall topped with a canopy (some call it God's canopy bed), and was made to reduce the appearance of the height to the top of the central dome, which looms overhead so high you can barely make out the painting of God at the top.
While we were there, a mass was being held, which allowed the beautiful church music to enhance our visit, but did cut off the front 1/2 of the church from visitors. Worshippers were allowed in to the front, but then are expected to stay for the entire mass. We declined. Instead we toured all the little side chapels where various popes are buried, including the recently beatified John Paul II, and where Michelangelo's hauntingly beautiful, yet emotionally wrenching, "Pieta" stands. You can really feel Mary's pain and utter acceptance, as the body of Christ is falling from her lap. Capturing that much movement and emotion in a statue is truly phenomenal.
As we were leaving the church, light was streaming in through the stained glass windows in sharp slanting columns of light. One particularly bright column rested its brilliance directly on a statue of Mary. It was almost enough to make you convert. Almost.
That evening we took a stroll through the city, seeing some remaining sights. The famous Trevi Fountain was gorgeous, with it's rushing waters and dramatic uplighting, although the crowds of people did detract from its beauty. We joined the throngs of people and each threw in a coin to ensure our return to Rome. The Spanish Steps were popular, too (even though we got a little lost on the trek there from the Trevi). We had dinner on Piazza Navona at a lovely outdoor sidewalk cafe overlooking more statues and fountains. It was a lovely end to our trip to Rome.
It was time to end our big city tours, and to start our return trip back through Italy, across the French Riviera, and back to the Barcelona area. After our exhausting but fun treks through big cities and eons of time, our last few stops were quiet little villages for some true R & R. For now, it was time to say to the Eternal City.... Arrivederci, Roma!