When in Rome… Roam!
07.07.2004 - 08.07.2004 93 °F
AN ITALIAN DRIVER AND HIS QUIET MOBILE CALL: WELCOME TO ROME!!
Wednesday, July 7, 2004. Our flight left Barcelona at 7pm for Rome. While still at the Barcelona airport, Vidal had called the convent-pensione that we would be staying at in Rome to inform the nuns that we were on our way. The nun said they would send a driver to get us; in her words- the airport taxi drivers would rip us off and she did not want to see that happen! Still nursing a knee injury from running with the bulls (well, from dancing in the streets beforehand), Vidal had gotten me a wheelchair at the airport and a bulkhead seat on the Volare plane. We landed at 8:30pm, but unfortunately I was the last one off, due to the wheelchair. We saw a man holding up a sign: ‘Sr. Vidal’, and assumed it was our driver, but we had to wait for our luggage, which came out last, before we could introduce ourselves to the driver, who then went for the car. Another 15 minute wait for that before we got in his Suburban, then he asked us where we were going. Confused, as he had been sent by the nuns to get us, I just said we were going to the Convent. He asked us which one. I pulled out my papers to look for the name, told him it was Istituto il Rosario- on Via Sant’Agata dei Goti. Where is it?, he asked… He did not know where it was, so he picked up his mobile phone to call his office…. All this of course as he was driving at full speed, like he was in Mexico City or on Chicago’s Dan Ryan, no sign of slowing and it might as well have been rush hour with a ton of traffic ahead of us, going quite a bit slower. He rode on the tails of cars without seeming to bother the drivers whatsoever, as they would simply change lanes to get out of our way without complaint, as if he were Moses parting the sea of cars; all of that while he was talking on his cell phone. Let me rephrase that for anyone not accustomed to Italians having a conversation: all the time he was yelling - loudly - on the cell phone. Then he would hang up and ask us something in a perfectly normal friendly voice, like where are you from, first time to Rome, etc. I was trying hard not to laugh out loud, thinking, oh, yeah! WE ARE IN ITALY!! Poor Vidal was sweating profusely and turning green, thinking we were going to die… His only experience with Italians was our Italian-American friend Tony from New York, who was an even-tempered Prozac addicted card carrying flower child compared to our driver.
THE ANCIENT CITY IN LIGHTS
It was late, the convent had a curfew, we were starving and there was no way I could be in Rome and not see something my first night. For that reason I had chosen the convent, as it was supposed to be a few blocks from the Colosseum. I started to pray for three things: 1- Please get us safely to the convent; 2- Please let us see something of Ancient Rome along the way so I would not have to drag Vidal’s butt out 5 minutes before curfew to see the Colosseum, and 3- Please get us to the convent in time to feed our growling bellies- we were famished! Suddenly, I saw some ancient buildings that were lit up with floodlights and asked what they were; he simply said, ‘Caracalla’. My heart leaped and a grateful ‘Thank You’ went up to heaven- we had just passed by the Terme di Caracalla, the Roman baths of Emperor Caracalla of 212AD; we were in ancient Rome! Prayer #2 answered, I knew I would sleep happy that night! We passed up an old aqueduct; I thought to myself, ho-hum; I had seen Roman aqueducts before so it was not as thrilling as the Caracalla, but then realized they were different… They were Roman aqueducts- in ROME- my first aqueduct sighting in the great city itself! Then suddenly… There it was- the Colosseum, all lit up! I was so thrilled and thankful to God for it! I knew we were close then, as the convent was only a few blocks from the Colosseum; it was 9:40pm. Even so, our driver got lost and had to make another screaming call…
WE ONCE WERE LOST BUT NOW WE FOUND OUR WAY TO THE CONVENT
We pulled up at 10pm at the convent, with Vidal’s help (yes, his fake Italian was that good) and assistance from 3 people in the streets and a call to the nuns. Prayer #1 answered- we checked in at 10pm; the sisters were so lovely, so sweet, and spoke perfect Spanish… They were all from Columbia! We got turned around trying to finding our room, #202; isn’t that the way it always is when one is pressed for time…?
Cute room with separate twin beds, it was still bigger than what we had in a few other places in Europe. We went back down quickly to ask about something nearby for dinner as we were cutting it close for the 11pm curfew; they directed us to a local tavern (Sisters! Really!) - the Taverna Romana. We asked the sister, a lovely little elderly lady from Columbia, what would happen if we got back a few minutes late, as we were concerned we could not eat that fast. With a straight face, she told us not to worry, they would just lock the doors and just let us in when they opened up in the morning! A bit more relaxed, we followed her directions: Walk to the end of the street, turn right at the wall, a few doors down. We hurried (I hobbled fast); just a short walk away we found it.
THE BEST LITTLE RESTAURANT IN ROME: NO PASTA, FINITO!
The Taverna Romana was a family run tavern, quite busy, but there was fortunately one table open. The owner, in his white shirt, white pants and white apron, greeted and seated us. He gave us menus, showed us the pasta side of the menu, told us in Italian,
“No pasta, finito”
then turned the menu over, told us ‘si’ for that side of the menu, ‘no’ for the pasta side of the menu. He told us the specialty in Italian, Abbacchio scottadito- "burned-finger lamb", pointing to it on the menu. We ordered wine, water and antipasto to start; Vidal ordered the lamb, I ordered sausage. He told me no, pointing to the lamb. I pointed to the sausage again. He said no, pointing to the lamb. Slightly confused at the apparent communication problem, I showed him the pasta side of the menu and said, "pasta no?"; he smiled and nodded in agreement, “Si, pasta, no!” I was in an Italian comedy, right? I held up the other side, pointing at it- ‘this side, si?’ He smiled and said “Si”! So I pointed to the ‘Si’ side, and ordered the sausage. He smiled, repeated again sausage no, you want the lamb… at least, I assumed that was what he said, as it was all in Italian! I gave up, ordered the lamb. He smiled and said ‘Molto buono!’ He walked away, I about bust a gut laughing, trying to tell Vidal that was a typical Italian scene from a comedy… Oh dear God, thank you so much! I love Rome! The antipasto, olives and hollow bread came out… Oh, my dear Lord, we are in HEAVEN! The best Pecorino cheese, the best spicy olives, delicious bread, sausage and some indescribably delicious spicy dried beef, accompanied by a small jug of splendid house wine; even the mineral water was perfect-not too fizzy. It was all so perfect; it was to die for…
And then came the Abbacchio scottadito… six lamb chops each, finger smacking good, I could read into our new Italian friend’s smiling eyes-
]“I told you so”! I couldn’t wait to see if they made my favorite dish, Fettuccini Alfredo. We both knew we would be returning there, to our new favorite restaurant IN THE WORLD, every night. We asked for the check at 10:50pm, we were back at the convent seconds before the doors shut at Il Rosario at 11pm sharp.
ON A CLEAR NIGHT, YOU CAN SEE ALL WITHIN ROME
Back at the convent, Sister Marta told us breakfast would be served from 7-9am (ha ha, Vidal, can’t sleep late!), and recommended a hop on hop off bus tour to get us oriented. Great, we said, we love those! -we had been so grateful that we took advantage of a hop-on hop-off bus tour earlier in Barcelona, it was really a great way to get the lay of the land without losing precious time, and with trivial bits that I love so well, to boot! Sister Marta also told us we should take a look up on the roof, as we could see the Colosseum, so we did... It was like a dream, seeing the top of the Colosseum all lit up, just a few short blocks away. I found a copy of Luke’s Gospel in our room, in 7 languages. This is sooo cool, thank you, Lord! Sweet dreams, fair sisters…
A CAPUCCINO, A BIKER AND A KNEE PAD
Thursday, July 8, 2004. I was up at 7am, Vidal rolled out of his bed (after a sharp push from me); at 8:20am. We were down for our continental breakfast with cappuccinos at 8:45am. “God is Love” God is Hope”, God is Home” signs adorned each table. Finished, we went to greet the nuns, in doing so we met some other guests; one was biking through Italy –kudos to him for trying! I’ve never done a trip like that, furthest I’ve gone was the Illinois Prairie Path from Elmhurst to Villa Park or Berkeley, Illinois. Wait, that is not true! Once I went with my Girl Scout Troop from Elmhurst to Brookfield Zoo, a whole 8 miles! After breakfast, the nuns directed us to a nearby pharmacy to buy my knee protector thingy (its official name). I felt good as new! The nuns gave us a map, we bought tickets from them for the hop-on-hop-off bus and hit the road to catch the bus!
HOP ON, HOP OFF, HOP ON-HOP OFF… THE TRAMBUS
Oh, to roam in Rome, the Eternal City! More than 2,000 yrs of history, once the largest city in the world and the center of Western civilization; a hop on, hop off bus tour really did seem like the perfect way to introduce ourselves to it. The Roma 110 Trambus stop was 3 blocks away; there was a bus there when we approached the street, but by the time we crossed over from our side it had left, and we had to wait another 20 minutes. We had to sit on the lower level of the bus which had no a/c, but we moved up to the top when we arrived at the Colosseum stop, not far away. The tour bus itself was fine; there were 11 stops in all. The tour included an earphone plug and we had our choice of one of 8 languages of which to listen to a prerecorded audio guide which highlighted the stops and 50 other places as we passed them; it was impossible to point out everything, as there were so many beautiful and ancient buildings and soooo much history! We rode around for the entire two hour ride before having to get off at stop number 1, the Termini train station. They made everyone get off and switch to another bus. Instead of doing continuous cycles, the drivers get breaks- unlike all other cities where we’d done the hop-on-hop-off thing where the bus just goes round and round all day like the wheels (♪ the wheels on the bus go round and round…♪). Along the route, we learned quite a bit of interesting trivia. For example, as we passed by the Palatine Hill, we learned about the founding of Rome: Legend has it that Rome was founded by the twins Romulus and Remus in 753 BC. They were the sons of a Vestal Virgin, who was forced to be a priestess by her mean old uncle so that she could not bear sons who could someday overthrow him. She was impregnated by the god of war Mars, bore the twins, then her mean uncle threw her sons into the Tiber River. The river god Tiberinus (whose story comes later on the tour) rescued the twins, put them on the Palatine hill and gave them to a she-wolf to suckle. The twins grew up, overthrew their mean great uncle, then founded Rome. They argued about whose name the city should bear, so they stood on the tops of separate hills, a circle of birds flew over Romulus, he assumed that meant he should be king and he killed his brother, rash tempers being part of that Italian family and all… Romulus went on to create the Roman Legion and the Senate, and the city prospered with many men. Romulus saw there were not enough women, so in the first recorded example of bride kidnapping, he ‘added’ citizens to his new city by abducting women of the Sabine tribe, to go down in history as the Rape of the Sabine Women. Although the word ‘rape’ actually comes from the word ‘raptio’, which means ‘kidnapped’, we get the picture.
THE PALACE ON THE HILL AND CHARIOTS OF FIRE
On top of the Palatine Hill is the 92AD palace Domus Flavia; once the residential complex of the Roman Emperors, it was now just a massive shell of its former glory. The palace overlooked the Circus Maximus- the ancient hippodrome, the first and largest circus in Rome. It was the site of public games, festivals and of course, chariot racing, with a track over 2,000 ft long and 400 ft wide, accommodating up to 270,000 spectators 4,000 wine jug stands and 2,000 hot dog vendors. That’s some party place! The track could hold up to 12 chariots, and each side of the track was separated by a diagonal ‘spina’- a low wall, adorned with statues of whatever god was in vogue, which held a ‘meta’, a turning post which marked the laps, around which chariots would whip around dangerous and fast turns. Nearby, we also saw the Imperial Fora and ancient shopping mall, the Roman Forum and the Colosseum, all which we would visit later, and the Piazza Venezia.
A ROMAN RIDDLE: WHAT DO A TYPEWRITER, WEDDING CAKE AND FALSE TEETH HAVE IN COMMON?
The Piazza Venezia was home to the 15th century Palazzo Venezia, a former papal residence and later the residence for ambassadors from the Republic of Venice (hence its name) and which was also the official residence of the fascist dictator Mussolini; he would give his speeches from the 1st floor balcony. What actually dominated the piazza is what I wrongly presumed to be a grand palace, but in fact was the 20th century Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele II , AKA Il Vittoriano- a massive monument dedicated to Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of the united Italy (1861-78). The monument was adorned with the tomb of the unknown soldier, bronze and marble statues, majestic stairways, the obligatory Roman columns and fountains, and an enormous statue of King Vittorio himself on horse; topped with 2 statues of the goddess Victoria riding her chariot, pulled by 4 horses. And a partridge in a pear tree, I am sure was in there as well.
It was made of seriously brilliant, blinding white marble (which supposedly will never dull), 230 ft high and 443 ft wide. Not well loved by the Italians - partly because in order to have it built, a large part of Capitoline Hill was destroyed, and partly because many felt it was a bit over the top, the epitome of self importance, and earning it some quite entertaining nicknames: "the wedding cake", "the false teeth", and “Zuppa Inglese" (English soup). In 1944, When the Americans liberated Rome, they gave it another fun nickname- "the typewriter", which made the locals laugh, and it too stuck.
AH YES, THAT CRAZY DUDE WHO FIDDLED WHILE ROME BURNED…
Some sites were mentioned by our digital tour guide but not visible from the bus, such as the Domus Aurea, the golden palace Nero built as a party palace for himself after he played the fiddle and sang a silly song about the razing of Troy while Rome burned. Supposedly after the insane tyrant committed suicide, the palace was stripped of its gold and jewels and the palace and grounds were filled up and built over, as the palace was considered extravagant and an embarrassment. The palace is still buried underground (as is Nero) but was open as a museum to view. It was discovered in the 15th century when a boy was walking on the Aventine Hill and fell through a fissure, finding himself in a grotto full of paintings. Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael brought ladders to climb down into what they thought were just caves, to study the art within. Finding new inspiration, the artists came up with a new style, ‘grottesche’, meaning ‘from the grotto’, but what we know as today as grotesque. I have seen photos of the remaining frescoes and by no means would consider using the word grotesque in the way I understand the word; but having said that, to choose a word to describe Nero, grotesque seems appropriate to use …
Strangely, the structure which was built above Nero’s’ stripped decadent palace was the Baths of Trajan… Trying to cleanse the area, were they? Okay, so maybe not so strange!
SOME PEOPLE PREFER TO KEEP THEIR HANDS TO THEMSELVES
Among the interesting sites we were unable to see from the bus was the Bocca della Verita- the Mouth of Truth, which some of us know from the movie, ‘Roman Holiday’. It is an ancient marble mask, about 2200 yrs old, of an unknown bearded god; it is placed inside of all places, a medieval church- the Santa Maria in Cosmedin. The 6 ft circular mask has open holes in its eyes, nostrils and mouth. Historians’ best guess is it was once either part of a fountain or a manhole cover… Imagine roaming the streets in ancient times, gazing up at the sky and tripping over the protruding nose of a deity-face manhole cover, PUH-LEEZE! Local legend says that if you stick your hand inside its mouth and it bites your hand off, you are a liar liar pants on fire. I’m not buying that one, either….
I CAN SEE CLEARLY NOW
A few ancient delights we were able to see from the bus were the 12 BC Theater of Marcellus- which resembled a smaller version of the Colosseum, the Largo di Torre Argentina, ruins of temples on an ancient square of Roman temples which include the ruins of the Theatrum Pompeium- where Julius Caesar was killed in 44BC, and the 28BC Mausoleo di Augusto – the ancient mausoleum of Emperor Augustus in a very sad state of disrepair, closed to the public.
AN ANCIENT BRIDGE, THE PLAGUE, THE ANGEL AND AN ESCAPE ROUTE
We crossed over the famous Tiber River, named after the ancient king Tiberinus Silvius of Alba Longa (and ancestor of Romulus and Remus). Alba Longa was a city in ancient Latium-home to the original Latin people and from where the Latin language comes; that area is now the Italian province of Lazio-where Rome is located. The only great thing I could find that the king did was to be drowned in the river, nothing else. He was then made a river-god (albeit a dead one) and the river was named after him. The silly things people did to have their names go down in history … He would later claim fame as the river-god who saved his descendant infant twins from drowning, but by then he was a river-god and that was part of his job... He reportedly later married their mother, which being related and all, you would think the locals would revolt at such a revolting idea and rename the river… We crossed over on the Ponte Vittorio Emanuele, a 19th century bridge with many interesting statues, pausing to look over at the Pos Aelius AKA Ponte Sant’Angelo AKA St Angelo’s bridge, one of Rome’s ancient bridges built in 136 AD by Emperor Hadrian and which leads up to the Castel Sant’Angelo.
The Castel Sant’Angelo is one of Rome’s most famous landmarks, with an interesting history: Built by the emperor Hadrian for himself and his successors as a mausoleum, it was a cylindrical structure by the river with a quiet, peaceful piazza and rooftop garden complete with rooftop trees; in 401 AD towers and defensive walls were constructed to protect from the Barbarians. Much was ruined when Rome was later sacked in 410AD, but the most fascinating trivia was the legend attributed to the castle- that of the Archangel Michael. It is said that as Pope Gregory the Great was crying out during the great plague that struck Rome in 590AD, he saw the Archangel floating above the castle, and watched as the Archangel sheathed his sword to signify the end of the plague. This was commemorated by a statue of the Archangel Michael with his sheathed sword; the statue sits proudly on top of the structure. When passed down to papal hands, it was used as a castle before they turned it into a prison. During the Renaissance, it guarded the papal riches as well as the papal emergency storage with vast reserves of food, water tanks, granaries and a mill; wineskins were set into the wall (please, protect wine at all costs!), it also became the papal refuge after they built a passageway from the Vatican to the castle, the Pasetto di Borgo. During that time, the castle saw much darkness, as during the Renaissance and Roman Inquisition it became the place of torture… Heads of the condemned were chopped off and hung along the bridge as a warning to others to beware and prisoners were starved to death; those who survived were burnt on the stake in the nearby Campo dei Fiori (field of flowers). This included people who did unspeakable horrors; case in point: Beatrice Cenci, abused daughter of an aristocrat who repeatedly reported incest to the Pope, asking for his assistance to no avail; she was arrested and decapitated for the conspiracy of the murder of her father. The Roman people knew of her horrible rotten father and angrily protested her imprisonment in vain; she became a symbol of resistance against the arrogant aristocracy after her beheading. There was also the ghastly person of Giordano Bruno, a priest and philosopher whose unspeakable horrors he was found guilty of were having cast away images of saints, keeping only a crucifix. 400 years later, an official announcement of "profound sorrow" and acknowledgement of error at Bruno's condemnation was given by the great pope, John Paul II. The castle later became a military barrack after the establishment of the Italian State; the 20th century saw it become a national museum. We passed by part of the Pasetto di Borgo when we passed the monstrous St. Peter’s Square and crossed into the walled Vatican City-State.
LA DOLCE VITA
Rome is not just home to historical monuments; it is home to historical streets, or Vias. We drove along Via del Corso, the main street running 1.5 km through the historical center of Rome which remains totally straight; narrow alleys and pleasant piazzas wind all around it, cafés and well known boutiques line the lovely via… We also drove down the short Via Veneto, forever famous from ‘La Dolce Vita’, for its upscale cafés and very expensive boutiques, as well as being the stomping grounds of the Jet Set crowds of the 60’s and 70’s. Via de Fori Imperiali, created by Mussolini, is not so well loved; in creating the passage from the Colosseum to the Piazza Venezia, the serious loss of monuments and churches was not given any weight, and ruined a plan dating back to 1800 to develop an immense archeological park of the Forums, the Circus Maximus and Via Appia Antica. The 19th century Via Nazionale, 3 blocks from our convent (…our? Yes, Vidal converted into a nun), is a very popular shopping street with locals (and we made some fun purchases as well).
IF YOU’VE SEEN ONE OBELISK…
Although it seemed we were seeing ancient obelisks on every corner, there are in fact only 13; 8 of which are ancient Egyptian and 5 were copies made in Egypt for the Romans. Until a few years ago, Rome even had a 1,700-year-old Ethiopian obelisk as part of its collection, but it was returned to its birthplace. There are 4 not so ancient obelisks as well which are only about 200 years old. So I guess maybe there really were obelisks around every few blocks, and if you’ve seen one obelisk (outside of Egypt)…
A FOUNTAIN BY ANY OTHER NAME IS JUST A FOUNTAIN
Besides the famous Fontana Trevi, which is a Must See on anyone’s list, not seeing a fountain while in Rome should be considered a crime. The Piazza della Repubblica was home to the Fontana delle Naiadi- the naiads being: the nymph of the lakes (holding a swan), the nymph of the rivers (lazily stretched out on a river monster), the nymph of the oceans (riding a horse which is supposed to symbolize the sea), and the nymph of the underground waters (leaning over a mysterious dragon).
A very famous fountain not to be missed is Bernini’s Fontana del Tritone on the Piazza Barberini. An oversized Triton adorns it- not a mermaid but a mer-man, kneeling on a wide open shell held up by the tails of 4 fish and holding back his head to raise a water spurting conch shell to his lips; the Piazza Barberini is also home to the Fontana delle Api-Bernini’s fountain of Barberini’s Bees.
TO BEE OR NOT TO BEE
One curiosity pointed out to us were the Barberini Bees, found in many places in Rome from the Piazza de Barberini to St. Peter’s Basilica. Why these three giant bees were chosen as the coat of arms for the Barbarians, I mean, the Barberini family, was not made clear.
SO MANY CHURCHS, SO LITTLE TIME
We passed by so many churches with fascinating tidbits from our digital tour guide, such as the church a pope lost to some aristocrat gambling, an ancient church conveniently located next to an ancient prison, a church built on the spot where a sibyl told Emperor Augustus of the coming of Christ, and let’s not forget the twin churches –one of which is the church of artists (apparently the other is for those of us with no talent). But perhaps the most fascinating trivia was that of the church where Nero is entombed- it is said to be infested with demons. Are we surprised? Naturally, each of the 215,436,583 churches we passed were known for a famous work of art inside, be it a fresco by Michelangelo, a painting by Cavoradossi of the Virgin Mary which made his wife jealous, an unusual chapel by Bernini or a pagan manhole cover. As it turned out, with so many churches with marvels inside to choose from to explore, too many choices meant no choice was made, and so the only Roman church we ended up visiting there was St. Peter’s, which doesn’t really count, as it is not actually in Rome.
For more information:
Istituto Il Rosario email- firstname.lastname@example.org tel: 06 679 2346
info on convent hotels in Rome: http://www.santasusanna.org/comingToRome/convents.html
Roman history: http://www.roman-empire.net