Jan 9 9:00am
Finally, I am back in Rome.
Planning this adventure, my real objective, perhaps, was always to get back to Rome. I spent 4 1/2 years in Rome during the late 70’s: A semester studying with a Stanford University program for Classics and Art History majors (I was one of the latter) and four years living the bohemian life after I finished college. A lot has changed, but they don’t call it the Eternal City for nothing. There are some things that will never change!
My initial delight over returning to Rome may have been influenced by the weather. After just two sunny days out of 12 in Tuscany, not even a wisp of cloud have I seen in Rome in seven. The city beckons at every turn, like smiling faces the buildings are bright and clean. Deeper hued than the butter yellow of Tuscany, their oranges and tans seem recently acquired. Yesterday, I read that the city was serious smartened up for the 2000 Jubilee year – and it shows. I remember a Rome dirtied by car and bus exhaust, caverns of dark brown, but no more. In fact, the even traffic is dramatically reduced!
The entire area around the Coliseum, which once resembled a 24 hour non-stop race track, is now a pedestrian area, complete with grass. We walked all over the central part of the city, from the Via Veneto to the Trevi Fountain, to the Pantheon and Piazza Navonna, to the Vatican and Campo dei Flori, to the Coliseum and the forums accompanied by car and bus traffic only on the major streets. On the side streets, we occasionally dodged a motor scooter, but mostly strolled easily, window shopping in hundreds of curious little shops and stores.
For me, the best thing about Rome is how the city rewards you for wandering around and exploring. For those who step off the well-worn tourist track and into the rioni (neighborhoods), the city leads you onward with narrow, cobblestone streets. Merry trattorie and bars share the sidewalks with flower pots and cats. Shops selling anything from antiques to fruit spill from their doorways. But, without your noticing, you’ll suddenly find yourself in a little piazza, and there sits one of Rome’s hundreds of fountains – this one a sea shell, held up by four boys, each pushing a turtle over the edge into the basin. Walk on and you arrive at another piazza, this one flanked by huge columns left over from Roman times! These are the surprising, unexpected little gifts from a city that has seen thousands of years of history unfold at her feet.
The other unmistakable thing about Rome that hasn’t changed (not for me, and apparently others who have written about the city through time) is that this is a city of laughter and happiness. Romans, in ancient times certainly, loved their games and public spectacles. The “let’s enjoy life” philosophy still seems a part of the personality of the city. The people are friendly and warm, heated when they’re angry, but just ’til they’ve finished shouting! As I walk the streets, the very stones seem to ask me, “Aren’t you glad to be alive?”
So off the horse, and on to the practical. We spent our first 3 nights in Rome in a beautiful little hotel behind the Via Veneto. That street may not host the beautiful people of “la dolce vita” as it once did, but it is still a place of elegance and beauty for visitors like us. One sad reminder of September 11 is the line of barricades in front of the US Embassy preventing any cars from stopping in front of it. In fact; the Embassy seems shut up and unwelcoming, wary and suspicious.
Our first tourist stop was actually on the Via Veneto, the funerary chapel of the Capuchin Monks. If you have been there, you know it is unforgettable, and of course of unlimited fascination to male children and I was accompanied by 4 of them. I thought their first introduction to Rome should be something so startling that they would always wonder what wonderful thing I would take them to see next. Good idea, right? Well, you can’t describe the chapel as something you “like” – five or six rooms decorated, walls and ceilings, with the bones of over 3000 dead monks. Fans of pelvises, and cornices of shoulder bones make a certain decorating statement, though not perhaps one you want to imitate at home. Our one lone girl child found it gruesome, so you can imagine the reaction of the boys… They all bought postcards to send to their friends!
The Trevi Fountain has lost none of its magic. The idea that if you throw a coin over your shoulder and make a wish, you’ll return to Rome, may need a bit of testing, though. Those of us in the group who had actually done this racked up an impressive 115 years since we threw the first coin (an average of almost 30 years apiece). I wonder what happens to people who don’t throw the coin.
From the Trevi Fountain, there is a path (different paving stones in the street) that leads you to the Pantheon, and about halfway along it you come out into the Piazza di Pietre – A monolithic ruin from the first century. Quite impressive, but of course so is the Pantheon, our next stop.
I had visited the Pantheon on my very first trip to Rome in 1975, and never bothered to go back. The only thing that struck me on that first visit was a Japanese tourist who was recording the sound of the water in the fountain. (This was in the days when everyone had separate equipment for sound, still pictures, moving pictures and all the Japanese tourists looked like itinerant vendors with all their equipment hung about the neck.) However, coming out of the winding streets into the piazza, in the evening and seeing the building head on, I asked myself why I hadn’t thought this was something special enough to revisit.
All through our travels this year we have seen wonderful architecture, each beautiful and spectacular in its time. But looking at the Pantheon, particularly its impressive dome, it struck me that I was close to the source of the inspiration that built them.
From the Pantheon we walked to Piazza Navonna, special to me because 1) it was an arena in Roman times, 2) hosts a fantastic Bernini sculpture and a 3) Borromini façade. Alas, none of that was to be seen. The Piazza was chock full of toy and sweets vendors, conveniently helping parents to shop for La Befana, a witch/fairy who brings little gifts to the children for Epiphany. We did attempt to get the “best” ice cream in Rome at Tre Scalini, but apparently it did not live up to its reputation.
Still trekking, we walked on, skirting the Tiber then cutting “inland” again to find ourselves walking up the Via dei Condotti to the Spanish Steps. In the summer, the steps are crowded with young people, flowers and tourists, but we had them pretty much to ourselves on a cold January evening. We climbed to the top, took pictures, of course, and then walked down the Via Sistina on the way back to our hotel.
Day two we walked to the Piazza Venezia, and starting at the Vittorio Emmanuele monument (which we didn’t climb) we started a very slow walk along the imperial forums toward the Coliseum. Our walk was slow because we were really enjoying the view. We had these books that show the “now” and “then” of the view of the forums. The “now” photo shows you the ruins as you see them, and the “then” is a plastic film that covers the “now” and shows you the buildings to which all the ruins belong. It is really a wonderful way to see the forums, and not just for the children.
We made it to the Coliseum but didn’t visit the inside because the line was very long. Instead, we crossed the street and walked into the Forum through the Via Sacra. Our trip through the forum was accompanied by many stops and consultations of the Now-Then book. We exited the forum at the opposite end (back near the Piazza Venezia) but headed upward to the Campidoglio, to admire quickly Michelangelo’s creation, Marcus Aurelius and the bronze wolf-mother of Romulus and Remus.
By this time the already notable Cumpiano Hunger Grump had taken over, so we were on yet another desperate search for a place to eat. We found one, and it turns out to be one of the highly recommended places to eat. Without knowing that until days later, we enjoyed a super delicious and relaxing lunch. One member of our party was so relaxed that she had a hard time staying awake through the coffee!
The afternoon found us walking again, this time headed to St. Peter’s. Stopping frequently for ice cream we made it to the Piazza just before sunset. Finally, a church big enough to impress my children! They enjoyed walking down the center aisle, where the lengths of other great churches are marked on the floor, many of which they had seen on the trip. They feigned indifference to the Pieta by Michelangelo, but in that they were notably alone. They also rubbed St. Peter’s foot and admired the baldochino.
Day three was set aside for the Vatican Museums, especially the Sistine Chapel. The children were excited to see it. I even heard one of mine say “I can’t die until I see the Sistine Chapel.” (I didn’t take him literally, but understood this to be a positive statement, as in “I want to see the Sistine Chapel.” The thing about children though is they often surprise you with their literalness…)
Anyway, we waited in the line, which was dauntingly long but gratifyingly fast moving. The first line was just to check for weapons, the second line was to buy tickets. The ticket lines were also long, but since most people were in family groups, not every person in line represented a ticket buyer, and these lines too moved pretty fast. Unlike most places there were at least 8 tickets booths open.
The Museum is not very friendly to the un-mapped. We didn’t have a map and could not find the promised color-coded guides we were supposed to find at the entrance. The result was that we followed the signs for the Sistine Chapel, and saw only what was on the route. That was probably fine – the children had expressed only disgust at the prospect of an art museum and the walk was still long through the museum to get to the Chapel.
The Sistine Chapel paintings have been restored since I saw them last and what a difference! The colors are incredibly bright and beautiful! It wasn’t hard to spend a half an hour staring at the ceiling and examining each of the panels. The Last Judgment, too, seems to beg for a long careful examination.
Is it lunchtime again? We had a nice lunch in a very busy restaurant near the Vatican, and spent the afternoon and our walk back to the hotel shopping. That evening we had our final dinner with the Imberts. We were all sad to see them off to Venice the following morning. Our own excitement awaited us: At noon we would be in our Rome apartment.
January 11 8:00pm
Today marks the completion of our first week in Rome. The weather has been great and so far, so good. We are settling into a routine similar to the one we had in Paris. We study in the mornings, have lunch, wait ’til the siesta is over, and then go out for a while. We varied this on Wednesday, going out in the morning to take advantage of the sights that are only open in the early part of the day.
So far, we have confined ourselves to places close to home. Within walking distance of the apartment we have some of the best sightseeing in Rome – The Forums. But we haven’t visited them yet! Wednesday morning we did a thorough visit, audio-guide and all, of the Coliseum. It is such a fantastic place. I think even the kids enjoyed the time we spent there. We also took advantage of our combined tickets and visited the Palatine Hill. That was a little disappointing. Without a guide or a map, it is hard to get a sense of the ruins. There is an audio-guide, but we didn’t see it anywhere. The day was beautiful though, so the walk through the ruins was very pleasant. I had not ever visited this area before. I am not sure if I just didn’t do it, or if this is one of the areas that was fixed up and opened to the public as a result of the Jubilee year. The ruins on the hill are those of the emperors’ palace. It’s hard to see the layout of the palace, mostly because of its size, but there is a stadium next to it, which you view from above and can easily see the layout. That is impressive, though nothing compared to the Coliseum.
Other visits last week included: a return trip to see Michelangelo’s Moses (with the camera) and the Bocca della Veritá, an ancient stone face with an open mouth. The mouth is said to close on the hand of a liar. Unfortunately, it seems that there had been some sort of vandalism at the church where the stone is and it was visible, but not accessible. The children were pretty upset, but we’ll check back in a month or so to see if it reopens. I had a great time listening to the children formulate statements that had no lies in them…Amazing how uncertain they become of what is true and untrue with the prospect of the mouth snapping shut on their fingers! On our Bocca walk we also took in a couple of Roman temples in the Forum Boarium that date from the 2nd Century BC, a portion of a bridge from the same time (Ponte Rotto), the island in the Tiber, part of what they now call the Ghetto (but it wasn’t called that back when I lived here before), and the Area Sacra Argentaria (one of my favorite places). This site has the remains of 4 temples all together, excavated right in the middle of everything (which I have forgotten to tell you, is always well below the current street level). The kids love the cats (I do, too). They are all very well fed, fluffy and diffident. We counted 15 at the Argentaria, seemingly waiting for their dinner.
Gerry Jr. has started playing basketball! He’s been waiting for this moment since we left and it looks as if it might work out. He practiced on Tuesday night and practically collapsed, he was so out of shape. Thursday night was better, but a lot more boys showed up and he got to play a little less. He’s on a schedule of 3 nights a week starting this Monday. We are also hoping he may have an opportunity to play with a high school team nearer home. Let’s see!
His practices are near the Vatican, just across from the Castel Sant’Angelo, so on Thursday night, while he practiced, Gerry Sr. and I visited the castel. This “castle” is connected to the Vatican by a fortress wall that permits the Pope to leave St. Peter’s and hole himself up in case of attack. Obviously, we are talking here about historically, but more interesting is perhaps that this building was originally Hadrian’s tomb! We raced through with audio-guides we beguiled from the bookstore attendant who wanted to be sure she got to go home on time. She didn’t want to let us take them, but we promised to be back by 7:30 sharp (we had to be anyway) and she gave in.
That night we ate at a restaurant that was recommended in a great little guide book I have. It was a nice place, but the reason I mention it is the centerbe we drank as a digestive. First, the color was weird! Bright lime green that practically glowed, the taste was like our worst nightmare medicine! However, it was an effective digestive and I was the only one, (what kind of distinction is this?) who was able to take more than three sips.
Friday, we broke whatever routine we were trying to establish and hooked up with friends we met in Puerto Rico who moved to Rome about 2 years ago. The Morris’s live outside of Rome, in a town called Marino, right near Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence. They had the vision to purchase a neat apartment in Castel Gandolfo with a big, beautiful terrace. During the summer, they’ll be able to sit on that terrace and receive the Pope’s blessing without even getting dressed! Their views are stupendous – of Rome and the Mediterranean on one side and the spectacular volcanic Lake Albano on the other. Really great!
We spent the night with them and the children had a wonderful time, just being kids, with other kids. We adults had fun too, being adults! It was great. Hopefully, we will see them much more in the 6 weeks we are here.
January 16 1:30pm
My poor computer has been giving us problems for a few days. Oscar says she’s old and ready to give up the ghost. Obviously she still has a few kicks in her, but who knows for how long?
We’ve had a fairly quiet few days, just studying in the mornings and sometimes in the early afternoon, then attempting to get out and see Rome in the late afternoon and evening. Gerry has been to basketball practice both Monday and Tuesday evenings. The need to be somewhere (near St. Peter’s) at a set time in the evening gives a structure to our days. Today, mercifully, no practice!
Sunday, Gerry Sr. and I went to the Episcopalian church, St Paul’s Within the Walls. This is an American congregation, quite small compared to the American Church in Paris, but that may be because they have several services throughout the day, so we only saw a fraction of the people who might actually attend church there. Fortunately for us, the rector was having an open house and we were able to meet some very nice people – also Americans in Rome. The other families we met were here with study abroad programs, one at the college level and one at the high school. They seemed as eager to make friends as we were, though again, most people don’t want to make friends with us, when we are here for such a limited time.
Sunday afternoon, husband only in tow, I walked all the way down the Via del Corso (Rome’s biggest shopping mall, I mean, street). Whether on purpose or by consequence, there was no traffic on this street and there were throngs of shoppers we had to fight our way through! On our walk over there though, the whole Via dei Fori Imperiali down to Piazza Venezia was closed on purpose to traffic. That was nice!
At the end of the Corso, we came out into Piazza de Popolo (of the People). We admired it for awhile and then climbed the hill to the Pincio, a particularly romantic spot for a view of the city. This is a very Roman thing to do, take a walk on a Sunday afternoon, so we were surrounded by many other people doing the same thing. From the Pincio we walked to the Trinita dei Monti (church at the top of the Spanish Steps) and discovered the steps just as they should be – crowded with young people! Stepping carefully through them, trying not to disturb the lovers, we made it to the Piazza di Spagna and then walked home.
Monday, our sightseeing attempted to get us to Trajan’s Markets, which I have told you already are spitting distance from our windows. Yet again, we were foiled by the weekly closing! So we took a walk, kids grumbling all the way, and happened upon the Museum of Pasta. Sounds yummy? Don’t be fooled! This was just about the biggest rip off of a museum we have encountered on the trip. It’s only saving grace was that I did learn something, but for $6 I could have stayed ignorant and happy my whole life! The funniest thing was how seriously the people in charge took themselves and their museum. They even have a brown tourist sign leading you to the museum just like the Pantheon and the Coliseum. You have to wonder what bureaucrat they had to pay to get that juicy perk.
Tuesday, our walk took us to a whole new (to us) part of Rome, Trastevere and the Gianicolo. Everyone was testy, so it wasn’t much fun, but we did get our bearings and saw the views from the Paolo Fountain and the Garibaldi Square. We also managed to do it at the right time of day (dusk), so it wasn’t a total loss.
Oscar and I came home while the Gerrys went to basketball practice, but we met up again at a restaurant near here for dinner. I had picked it out of a guide book, with little information to go on. It turned out to be a very interesting experience. There were exactly 6 tables. We were definitely sitting in what used to be a living room, but is now the restaurant. We could see directly into the kitchen. There were no menus. The waiter, who we presumed to be the owner, came to the table and told us what the choices were (all 5 of them). Serving tables was a woman we guessed was his wife. In the kitchen, we could see the mother, or mother-in-law, in charge of the dishwasher.
All of the tables were served their first courses at the same time. Later we were all served our second courses at the same time, and ditto with the desserts. This takes quite a while, even when there are only six tables so, as it was getting on to 11 o’clock, we were, in fact, the first to get our check and leave. The food was very good, and original, though the kids didn’t find that much of a plus. Naturally, it was expensive (the clue was no menu) so whether we we’d return, I can’t say, but I probably wouldn’t take the kids again.
January 18 9:30am
Yesterday, a beautiful day, accompanied us on our first excursion out of Rome. We headed for the Town of Tivoli, just 20 kilometers from Rome by the map, but an hour away by the Via Tiburtina (next time we’ll take the autostrada!).
I learned that the Roman name for Tivoli was Tibur, hence the Via Tiburtina was the old Roman road to Tivoli. The drive was interesting because we got to see the parts of Rome that are not the historic center where we live. Even the driving was not that bad. Getting out of the city though, no matter where you are in the world is always refreshing, and it is easy to see why Tivoli has been a favorite place for Romans for the last 2000 years!
The town is located on a hilltop. In fact, it appears to be the hilltop! In the center of the town was our first destination, the villa of Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este, the Villa d’Este. The guidebook had nothing really positive to say about the villa itself, so I wasn’t expecting to do anything but walk straight through to see the famous gardens. However, the empty rooms with their terracotta tile floors and elaborately painted walls and ceilings caught my imagination and I found myself looking at them fairly closely. It struck me how these rooms really were those of a “country house” despite the size of the villa. Just two days before, I had visited the Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome. It was easy to compare the formality of the Rome palace with the informality of these rooms. Another detail that particularly struck me, because I saw it in both places, was the impact of the color combination of red, black and creamy yellow. Don’t be surprised if you see me do something in those colors to my house in Puerto Rico when I go home!
The gardens of the Villa d’Este are unforgettable. Both Gerry Sr. and I were excited to visit them again. The day was brilliant, though cold, and the views terrific. All of the gardens were quite green so the effect was not so different on a January afternoon than it might nave been in the summer, except that there were fewer than 10 other visitors. Not all of the fountains were on. That was probably just as well. The spray from those that were on had formed ice in many places, and we did have to be mindful especially on the steps and ramps. Of course, the important fountains were all on, so I don’t think much was lost.
The children seemed to enjoy the visit, probably because we were outside. Oscar was also captivated by the troop of extremely friendly and affectionate cats that followed us from place to place. I couldn’t help but think about Gerry’s biology chapter on selective breeding: That these cats were all definitely related we could see by their fur, but they were universally friendly and affectionate, too. Unfortunately Oscie did get a little souvenir scratch on his face to take home with him, delivered when he tried to pick one of the cats up.
After the Villa d’Este we had a sandwich lunch in an outdoor cafe and then headed for the Villa Adriana. This is Hadrian’s Villa, a ruin from the 2nd century. We didn’t have much hope of getting to see it because the guidebook said it closed at 4, but we were lucky that the book was again wrong. It closed at 5 and we had an hour and a half to see it.
The most memorable part of Hadrian’s Villa is the beautiful Canopo, a long pool with white marble statues along its edge, reflecting in the impossibly blue water. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see it except from afar. Renault had taken over that whole part of the excavations for a photo shoot and debut of their new models. On the plus side, it forced us to spend more time looking at other parts of the excavation, namely the palace itself, the Temple to Venus and the theater, all of which we would have had to race through to finish our visit on time if we had lingered at the Canopo.
Once again, the trade off for cold weather and no other visitors worked to our favor. We saw no other tourists at all in the excavations. Perhaps the lack of visitors gives the guards and guides more of an interest in helping tourists who do come. I have been so impressed by how forthcoming the Italian guides are with information about the sites and museums, as well as helpful with historic details. It doesn’t bother them that they don’t speak English to us…They just tell us everything in Italian and fortunately, we can understand.
We left Hadrian’s Villa at 5, but had to take it slow returning to Rome. Only cars with a certain license can travel around the center before 6:00 pm and we haven’t got it. We took the autostrada (super highway) back from Tivoli (much shorter) but got off and found a supermarket. We shopped, causing quite a scene. It wasn’t for any bad behavior mind you, but because we were probably the first American tourists to show up in that part of the city.
Home again by 6:30 pm, we all agreed it had been a good day and we’re looking forward to another excursion. Gerry Jr. unfortunately missed his basketball practice, but he chose to do so since the team has a game this weekend and would be working on plays (something they don’t do with his help).
January 23 9:20am
Based on a comment from a little book I have about the “Secrets of Rome” I found a great guidebook for Rome. It is from the Companion Guides series, is called just “Rome” and is written by Georgina Masson. This book, all guide and some “poetry,” makes the city so alive! I cannot recommend it highly enough. It isn’t the type of guidebook you can carry around with you. It is large and too detailed to read as you walk around, but reading it before and after you visit the sights provides exceptional insights.
It happened. My computer died. It was a horrible, ugly and sad demise for a noble machine. Actually, though I am joking, I was attached to that little machine. It was my companion on many travels over the last two plus years, and I will miss it.
I was fortunate though that I lost very little when it did go. Gerry Sr. was able to coax many of my recent files out of the hard drive using DOS (remember that?). The only immediate effect is that I have lost 5 days of journal writing, which you may or may not feel is a negative development!
So, besides worrying about my computer for the last five days, have we done anything else worth mentioning? Actually, yes. Sunday afternoon we took the complainers (Oops! I mean the children) to St. Peter’s again. We went to buy ice cream at a particular place that they liked and then to take a walk. The ice cream place was closed, and we almost had to forfeit the walk, too. Gerry and I finally coerced them into visiting the cathedral again, this time to climb to the top of the dome.
A climb it was! 320 steps besides the elevator! Interestingly, the stairs follow the curve of the dome, so you can sense the shape of it and know where you are. You get out of the walkway twice. The first time you are still inside the cathedral, just above the letters that circle the inside of the dome. From there, the people below look like ants, and you can look across the open space and compare the other tourists to the size of the letters. The letters are larger…
The second time you get out of the walkway, you are outside, looking at the panorama of Rome. It is worth the climb. Fortunately, the walkway is wide and the railing is very trustworthy, so it is possible to enjoy the view.
When we came down from the dome, we went into the cathedral and visited both the treasury (called the “museum”) and the crypt. I read subsequently that everything in the treasury is fairly recent (last 500 years) because all the older things were carried off in the sack of Rome. We had to rush through the crypt because it was almost closing time, but basically here are the tombs of many of the popes who are buried in St. Peter’s. You can also see some remains of the original Basilica of Constantine dating from the 4th century.
On Mondays, most of the state run museums are closed, so I took a day off and stayed home to read my book. The Gerrys went out in the evening to basketball practice. Yesterday, after school and lunch I dragged the unwilling children out to see the Museo Nazionale Romano. The part of the museum we saw yesterday (it has four parts in all) just opened in 1999 and has the second most important collection of Roman wall painting and mosaics in the world, after the museum in Naples (which has all the Pompeii and Herculaneum ones). We saw some fantastic wall paintings – I have to marvel at the patience of the artists who created these…The details are incredible, and certainly comparable to the same type of painting from the Renaissance.
The mosaics were remarkable in their completeness – no insignificant fragments – but there was one in particular that stands out in my mind: The floor was white with a border of plants. The artist used several different shades of green tessere to create the leaves of the plants, giving them quite a painterly quality. It was a far cry from the geometric designs and stylized figures of most of the other floors. This one also was one of the large floor designs, created with larger chips of marble. There are several instances in the museum of floor insets, smaller “pictures” made of tiny, tiny tiles that were installed in the center of the floor, like a medallion.
Gerry Jr.’s basketball practice was early last night and I went with him this time. We have a very convenient bus that takes us from just up the street right to St. Peter’s. The ride is fast, and passes some of my favorite places in Rome. It is especially lovely coming home at night, when everything is illuminated (St. Peter’s, Castel St. Angelo, Piazza Argentaria, the Victor Emmanuelle Monument, the Campidoglio…)
January 26 10:30am
Having only one computer for four intensive users is going to be a problem…This is the first access I have been granted since I last wrote.
Wednesday is the day we thought would be our “going out” day, but this week we didn’t really get organized to do anything so we had a regular school day. Gerry Sr. and I went out in the afternoon. I was inspired by my new guidebook to go back and see some things that I had missed in the various years I have been here, and we made some nice discoveries.
Our first stop was the top of the Victor Emmanuelle Monument. I don’t think I have ever been up there before, though I can’t think of why it would have been closed. Perhaps it was just the general disdain for it that kept me away. Those pretensions gone, we climbed it. It’s huge! It’s even larger when you are on it than it appears looking at it! It is a little like St. Peter’s in that the scale is so utterly gigantic, that you don’t really comprehend how gigantic until you purposely look for a size comparison. Remember the people versus the letters on St. Peter’s? This is the same thing. I took a picture that I hope will show you what I mean. (See the second Pictures of Rome link. (* This comment is from the original blog and will make sense when I get the pictures for this version organized and posted.)
The views from the top are very lovely, too. We had a pleasant, but slightly hazy day and our views were of the Forum, the Coliseum, the Capitol and the Corso.
From the monument we went around to the Ara Coeli Church and climbed its steep, pilgrimage staircase to the church. The church is much larger inside than it appears just looking at the facade from the street below. There really isn’t anything spectacular about the inside: It is just sort of curious. There is one chapel with beautiful frescoes and, the nave columns are mismatched and borrowed from other sites. This church has a long history though…A church has been on this spot since the fifth century and some of the frescoes in the nave tell the story of Augustus and the Tiburtine Sibyl, who according to legend foretold the birth of Christ to a Virgin. This is the sibyl responsible for getting all of them (the other sibyls) immortalized by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Another curiosity in the church is the Santo Bambino. The original was stolen about 8 years ago, but there is a copy (blessed by the Vatican) in his place. This is a wooden image of the Christ Child said to have miraculous healing powers. I won’t tell you his whole story, but he has a special relationship with children. On his altar there are baskets of letters written to him from all over the world. The letters apparently stay there for a few weeks, unopened, and then are burned. The child is covered with thank offerings from those whose prayers have been answered.
From the Ara Coeli, we exited by the side door and found ourselves at the back of the Campidoglio (Michelangelo’s piazza for the Capitol). That was a good thing, too. Had we gone back out the front, we would have had to go all the way down the Ara Coeli staircase just to re-ascend the hill via Michelangelo’s staircase. We paused for a few minutes in one of Rome’s myriad “corners”, those little tucked away parks, filled with broken pieces of antiquity, laurel bushes, park benches and a delightful, cameo view.
From there we went in search of the Mamertine prison, where Saints Peter and Paul were imprisoned, among many famous others, before their martyrdoms. The history of the place is gruesome, complete with a plaque on the wall telling how each of the famous prisoners met his end…
Finishing up there, we walked along the Via dei Fori Imperiali, drinking in views of the ruins, something we just can’t seem to get enough of. Excavations continue in the ruins even today. I was thinking that in 20 years time, we may see that the road itself will exist on a bridge that spans the forums, rather than being built, as it is now, on the centuries’ worth of fill.
Thursday was the first really rainy day we’ve had, a perfect day for curling up in bed with a book, which is what I did!
Friday, however, was brilliant and very warm! We did part of our school work outside on the patio in the sun. Oscar even got a little bit of a sun tan! It was far too nice to stay indoors, so after lunch we headed out (all four of us) to walk to the Baths of Caracalla. It was a landmark-filled walk – past the Forums, the Coliseum, the Arch of Constantine, the Palatine to the Circus Maximus (our first view of that) and finally the Baths. They had just closed 9 minutes earlier. (Yes, we did check the guidebook for times and it was supposed to close an hour before sunset, but in true Italian fashion, that had changed and now the closing hour was 3:30pm.)
Our walk wasn’t wasted however, because we took the opportunity to go searching for St. Stephen’s School, and discovered the beautiful neighborhood of the Aventine. After that we took a bus home and dropped off the children, and Gerry and I kept on walking. It was just too nice a day to stay inside. Our rambles took us through two nice quiet parks, and many side streets with quaint shops. For dinner, we went out for pizza, and as I have said before, don’t let anyone tell you the pizza in Italy isn’t good. It’s fantastic!
January 28 8:30am
Saturday was a wonderful day. Oscar and Gerry Sr. and I drove out to Ostia Antica to visit the excavations and to see the beach. On the way, we drove through EUR, the modern suburb of Rome, promising ourselves another visit soon. There is a museum there that has scale models of Rome through the ages, and it is recommended for children.
Also, on the way, we stopped in the town where I used to live. It has changed a lot in 20 years. Then it was just a little outlying community. Now it is a city for people who commute into Rome. I saw the house I lived in and even checked to see if my old neighbors still live there, and they do! Perhaps, I’ll go back and see if they remember me another day.
We finally got to Ostia Antica (probably a little more than a half an hour from Rome) and visited the site with audio guides. Ostia Antica was a city of 50,000 people that served as the sea port for Rome. It was sited right at the mouth of the Tiber and the coast, so seagoing ships were unloaded here, and their cargoes transferred to river ships to be taken up the river to Rome. Now, the sea coast has moved out 4 more miles and the Tiber has changed its course.
The excavations are extensive and in very good shape. It is easy to get a feel for the city, and you can see many different kinds of buildings. The mosaic floors are still in their original positions, and through them archeologists have been able to surmise the uses of the buildings, including the individual stalls in the markets. One of these supplied exotic animals to the gladiator shows in the Coliseum. We also saw a flour mill (mill stones still in place), a restaurant, a bar, a wine shop, clothes cleaners and all the requisite temples and baths. The theater is in particularly good condition. All in all, it is a very satisfying place to visit, because you can see so much. Once again, we found that the audio guides were an excellent way to appreciate the site. Unfortunately, we didn’t really have enough time to explore on our own, so I recommend that you go with plenty of time to really enjoy all there is to see.
After the excavations we went to the modern town of Ostia and looked for the beach. It was not a particularly sunny day, so the beach didn’t look that appealing. Especially to people used to the beautiful sand beaches of the Caribbean, it could hardly compete. We did stop at a beach cafe to have a coffee, beer, soda respectively before we drove down the beach southward. As we did the establishments for bathers became increasingly fancy, just before they stopped altogether. There at the end we decided to head back to Rome and found ourselves on a road, visually quite similar to Piñones, and populated by “working girls.” Oscar recognized them even without the red lights of Amsterdam.
We snuck back into Rome before the 6:00pm restrictions on traffic in our area were lifted, because we wanted to go to the movies. Our bus ride there was truncated about 15 minutes away because of the traffic – pedestrian! I don’t know if it was for something special or whether every Saturday evening is like that but there were oceans of people from Piazza di Spagna to the Piazza del Populo. The movie was sold out but we went ahead and bought tickets for Sunday evening. Then we took a bus home and went out for dinner in an Indian restaurant that Gerry and I had tried before. We had an excellent dinner and I think Oscie enjoyed it, too.
Sunday was a pretty routine sort of day. Gerry Sr. and I went to church in the morning, Oscar cooked tortellini with tomato sauce for lunch, we played cards, and left for the movies. We went to see the Lord of the Rings. Amazing to me is that you can buy a ticket to the movie by phone or internet (as well as in person) and you get an assigned seat! When you get to the theater, you let an electronic eye scan your ticket and it gives you admittance (not a person). The theater was very small. Gerry Sr. had complained that our seats were in row F, too close to the front. Actually we were in the last row! The seats were huge, easy chairs with head rests even. No worry about falling asleep in that movie though! (We all enjoyed it, but it was long!)
We met Gerry Jr. after the movie (he wasn’t interested in seeing it…) and went to the Pantheon area where we had dinner outside in the square. It was very nice, very relaxing. All the outdoor places here in Europe have these gas heaters. Sitting outside under those, you can even take off your coat, just as if you were indoors, and especially last night as it has been very mild here for almost a week. We were so exhausted after watching that movie, that Gerry Sr. even let us take a taxi home.
February 4 9:00am
We’ve had a busy week…It started off normally enough with school and basketball. We had a certain sense of urgency though because we were expecting a guest on Wednesday. Gerry finished units in History and English Grammar, and though we thought to have time to finish the tests, our guest arrived earlier than we thought he would! For once the plane arrived on time!
That was good news for the kids. Our guest is a counselor from camp, and with him he brought all the excitement and fun and friendship of camp, and certainly livened up their lives. It really has been a pleasure having him. Not only has he gotten the kids out of the house and seeing everything in Rome along with him, but he has given Gerry and me some time to ourselves. We used it wisely, visiting art museums and churches and things we knew the kids would complain about.
Wednesday, we went to the Galleria Borghese where we saw, among other things, several major works by Bernini. Gerry is converted! There is one work in particular – Apollo and Daphne – that really caught his eye because the leaves of the tree seem too impossibly thin and papery to be marble.
Thursday, we were headed to the Villa Giulia to see the Etruscan art but a strike of the busses kept us closer to home. We walked to the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, visited that thoroughly, and then walked to San Giovanni in Laterno and visited that pretty thoroughly…we just saw the Scala Santa, but didn’t climb it on our knees. We also had a really nice lunch along the Via Merulana. It wasn’t the restaurant I remembered from 20 years ago, but it was just as good and had the same sort of feel.
Friday, all together, we went again to the Vatican Museums so that Tim could see the Sistine ceiling. Gerry and I managed to see the Etruscan Art section as well as the Raphael rooms, both of which were new to us. We ate for the 4th time at a neat little restaurant near Gerry’s basketball gym.
Saturday, again all together, we piled into the car and drove out to the Via Appia Antica to visit catacombs. It was a really pretty day. We visited the catacombs of Saint Sebastian, where SS Peter and Paul were buried for a time, along with 100,000 other Christians. The catacombs are really interesting though the tour is short. Obviously with 6 miles of burial niches cut into the wall, you can see several hundred feet and you have seen what it all looks like, but there is a sense when you are there of how special the place is…tunnels that go off into the darkness, branching away from the tunnel you are walking in, the inscriptions that are left giving you a sense of the people who were buried there, and generations of graffiti placing you among the millions of subsequent visitors…These are the Catacombs of Saint Sebastian because he was buried here, but his remains are now housed in a church built over the catacombs.
From there we continued down the Via Appia Antica and visited the Circus of Maxentius. This is a place that I remembered from my days as a student and was never able to locate again. I remembered it because it was built using urns in the walls to keep them light and because, being built near the end of the Roman Empire…there wasn’t enough money to make it solid brick. Tim and Gerry got conned into running once around the track (the circo is in very good condition for something that has been abandoned for 1600 years). The chariot races took 7 turns around the track, but one was enough on foot!
From there we went to the Tomb of Cecilia Metella, a big, huge mausoleum tomb, similar in shape to those of Augustus and Hadrian…but for a woman. We had a picnic lunch outside among the ruins of a fortress that was built for the Caetani family around the tomb. Just after the tomb the road changes from modern Roman bricks to ancient Roman stones. Thinking about the shock absorbers on our car, we parked it and walked. The walk along the road takes you by tomb after tomb of ancient Romans. The view and walk are very picturesque. Antonio Canova came up with the idea that the ruins and fragments found along the way should be set up again where they were found, and the result is lovely. This is truly one of the prettiest walks I have ever seen. The road stretches straight away, bordered on both sides by beautiful trees, the tomb fragments, and the stone walls of the fabulous, modern villas. I could have gone on all day, but the men (young and old) couldn’t find the magic and insisted upon returning to the car.
We drove along the road for a while and then decide to go to Castel Gandolfo to see Lake Albano. It was a very hazy day but the views were still memorable and we returned to Rome at about 4:30pm sneaking back into to our neighborhood despite the traffic restrictions.
Sunday we had plans to meet the Morris’s and go to Subiaco to visit the monastery of Saint Benedict. On the way, we took Tim to the Villa d’Este in Tivoli. Oscar particularly was thrilled to go again, though he did pick up another cat scratch! The monastery was very spectacularly sited on the side of a cliff, around the cave where Saint Benedict spent 3 years as a hermit. The views were stunning. We left the monastery in the evening to pink skies glimpsed between the sharp rises of the mountains.
February 7 8:00am
We just said good-bye to our RAC friend Tim, who’s on his way to Greece. The kids are very sad to see him go. They have had more fun in a week with him than they have had on this whole trip with us (to hear them describe it!).
As always happens when you have a guest, and has even happened with us, tourists though we are too, we all saw lots more than we might have just to show him all there was to see. Monday we tried to get some school work done and Tim took off for Florence for the day. Just a word to the wise…All the sights and museums run by the Italian government are closed on Mondays…I took an hour or so in the late afternoon to walk up to the used bookstore. I got a big fat Colleen McCullogh book called Caesar’s Women. That should be appropriate to read in Rome, right?
Tuesday the kids went to Ostia Antica with Tim and Gerry and I went to the Villa Guilia Museum. It is filled with Etruscan artifacts. The museum has some very beautiful pieces and they are wonderfully displayed, but it is so big. We were exhausted when we finished and the later displays didn’t get a fraction of the attention we lavished on the earlier ones. The museum was laid out by site, chronologically within the site. There was no explanation for why they chose this particular set-up (i.e. so we could compare the different sites) so the result was that we moved from the 11th century BC to the 3rd for Vulci, and then again for each of the other sites (and there were easily 8-10 of them). There wasn’t much that was different, so after the first few sites, I started to look for only the items that were different. I am sure that I missed a lot that way, but it was overwhelming to try to look at everything. The museum was a little disappointing from a historical perspective because of the lay out, but fascinating to an art historian! How I wish I could have taken pictures of the pieces I liked!
From there we headed over to Campo dei Fiori, looking for the street of a new apartment we thought to rent. It would be fun to live over there. The area is really hopping. However, we found out later that that apartment isn’t going to be available after all.
Wednesday we drove down to Pompeii. The drive was just short of 3 hours, door-to-door, each way. It was just do-able for a day trip, though I am not sure I would recommend doing it that way. There are certainly enough other places to visit in the area to warrant an overnight stay, but none of our guidebooks could recommend a hotel (?) and with an ugly day, we couldn’t climb Vesuvius or see the views from Capri anyway. We had one of the only rainy days we have had in Rome. Mercifully, it rained hard while we were driving but we had only one period of light drizzle in the four hours we walked the excavations.
Pompeii was a universal success. Naturally Gerry Sr. and I liked it, but it also got rave reviews from our younger members. It must have been interesting for them to see Ostia Antica and Pompeii on successive days. Both are ancient cities from the same time period. Both sites allow you to really see a city – houses and shops and city buildings, all together and fairly intact. I did not remember Pompeii as nice as I found it yesterday. It amazed me how little touches around the excavations really enhanced the experience. Most of the wealthier houses in Pompeii had fountains or little pools in the atrium, and a garden within the villa. Now as you walk the streets and peer into the doorways, you can see small trees and large plants back in the areas where the gardens might have been. Since they are mostly roofless, these plants are well lit and fairly glow in the inner recesses of the ruins.
The houses you can visit inside are wonderful! It is easy to imagine building a house with that type of open plan in Puerto Rico, where you can benefit from the airiness inside, as well as the accommodations made for hot weather. Again I was struck by the beautiful combinations of colors – reds, yellows and blacks. Of course, we saw the Villa of the Mysteries with its dramatic frescoes! But it wasn’t the only villa whose wall paintings were worth looking at. It is a little sad to see how many of the frescoes have been removed, though they probably have a better chance for long term survival under the controlled conditions of the Naples Museum.
We’re currently planning a trip to Venice for next week, and in the meantime I hope to get caught up on the school work we have missed this week.