All the grandeur that was and is . . .
27.02.2011 - 14.03.2011
February 27 – March 14, 2011
As I write this (in August, 2011) we are cooling our jets in Indonesia, waiting out the summer heat and “high season.” So, I’m going to fill in some of the places we didn’t blog about earlier.
“Let’s go Rome!” We took the train down from Florence into Rome’s big Stazione Termini. Lovers kissed, sobbed, cuddled, and stroked until the last possible moment—passionate, going-off-to-war-worthy goodbyes. No war, just those romantic Italians. After dropping our bags at the B&B we walked around getting our bearings. We ambled along Via del Corso past colorful shop window displays and trattorias busy with diners at small tables on the sidewalk mingling with space heaters and street musicians under striped awnings. We passed the Victor Emmanuel Monument to Italy’s first president and climbed the Grand Staircase (designed by Michelangelo) past the mayor’s palace up to a spectacular view of the ancient Forum at night.
On our way home, it started raining hard, soaking through our rain jackets. We relented and bought umbrellas—a good purchase as it turns out—we have used them many times since for rain and sun. Rain notwithstanding, our street was a bustle of activity: a political demonstration, people arguing post fender-bender (in Italian, with lots of gesturing, of course), and an ambulance fetching a boy whose foot had been clipped by a motorcycle. That’s Rome—all chaos—with great art, food, and a la dolce vita attitude. We asked local people about the demonstration and the overall evening ruckus—they sighed with acceptance, “It’s nothing unusual, this happens all the time in Rome.”
We walked the Forum in daylight—through the same streets as Caesar, Roman armies returning with slaves and animals from conquered lands, orators pitching their ideas from the Rostrum (“Friends, Romans, countrymen . . . lend me your ears.”), and the six Vestal Virgins keeping the symbolic flame of Rome burning.
One night in Rome we were the target of a pick-pocket team. As we walked along a nicely dressed middle-aged man “accidentally” caught his umbrella handle on the strap of my bag and umbrella. The strap was across my chest, so my bag didn’t fall to the ground, but I was jerked to a halt and instantly surrounded by two young women as he and I disentangled. Then they were gone. An unsuccessful attempt: we wear valuables in pouches under our clothes and close bag zippers with hardware store o-rings. Brad said the precision of their maneuver was impressive; the encounter took about five or six seconds. We appreciate all the tips from experienced travelers—they worked!
It’s always a good time to eat in Italy. We weaved in and out of side streets, dropping into the many small cafes on the ground floor of yellow and ochre buildings for an espresso, gelato, salad, pasta, and/or biscotti . . . One day we chatted with the owner and staff who were taking a mid-afternoon break in front of their café in the Trastevere area of Rome. We were hungry but it was late for lunch and early for dinner. The owner said, “nessun problema.” After making us comfortable as a small table in the back of the empty café the staff set to work creating a pasta, tomato, seafood, and sautéed spinach meal for us. They made several trips carrying boiling water from the espresso machine in the bar in the front of the cafe to the kitchen in the back to get the pasta cooking. Yum-yum, another delicious, freshly cooked meal in Italy.
We strolled to the top of our street, past an enormous church, and down a cascade of steps, and through a park to the Colosseum, the 2,000-year old amphitheater of gladiator fights and other blood-sports designed to entertain, pacify, and otherwise occupy the Roman populace (“Give them bread and circuses.”). Our thoughts toggled from the horror of the “sport” to the genius of the construction. Its engineering is still spectacularly amazing—from the seating which held 50,000 fans (who could enter and exit in minutes) to the subterranean mazes where gladiators, animals, and props were raised to the arena level by hydraulic elevators. The pitted walls remain where the marble facade was plundered for construction of other buildings.
Speaking of plundering, or perhaps preserving, you know all those headless statues? Guess where we found the heads? Museums in Rome! In addition to the heads, we saw some mind-blowingly beautiful sculptures and mosaics.
We went, several times, to the grandest of all churches--St. Peter’s Basilica, the enormous, Baroque, centerpiece of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. St. Peter’s Basilica is designed to overwhelm and impress--and it does. Entering the church, pilgrims and potential converts were supposed to come to a single conclusion—that this must be the true God’s church, and I am sure many did. St. Peter’s Basilica is so large that it is hard to mentally process the retinal image. I had to keep reminding myself that although Bernini’s bronze baldachin looked small dwarfed by the nave’s dome, the baldachin was higher than a seven-story building, making the dome . . . well, REALLY BIG. But not to worry, the designers left nothing to chance: notations in the marble floor mark the smaller sizes of great churches around the world! And, in true Baroque style, no surface is unadorned with sculptures, marble, mosaics, and gold.
We also enjoyed a most pleasant sunny day walking, arguably, the straightest road in the world—the ancient Appian Way—built by the Romans to transport their armies and supplies in and out of Rome. The large cobblestones showed the ruts of thousands of years of wagon wheels. The side of the road is littered with ancient sculpture and building fragments. The crumbling remains of ruins reveal creative recycling of building materials. We followed the route of the returning Roman soldiers back across the Tiber River and into the heart of the city.
Did I mention the fountains?—another engineering marvel—the Roman aqueducts bringing all this water into the city enabled free-flowing fountains everywhere; some wonderfully ornate and others charmingly simple. What a pleasure to find fountains around every corner. Contemporary Romans cup their hands under the spouts and grab a drink as they walk by.
I’ve saved one of my favorites for last: the Pantheon: OMGs. At the time of its construction it was the largest dome of unreinforced concrete in the world. Impressive, but more awesome, such an elegant dome with its square-patterned indents and central oculus through which we watched white doves flying in the night sky. Recently scientists determined that in addition to letting in light and air, the oculus served as an astronomical calendar that perfectly illuminated the emperor’s entrance at 12:00 noon on the spring solstice. The 60-ton granite columns at the entrance were quarried in Egypt—what a transportation feat! Acceding to his wishes, the artist Raphael, who visited often, is buried in the Pantheon so that, in his words, he could be among its beauty for eternity. The inscription, in Latin, over his tomb states: "Here lies Raphael by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived, and when he was dying, feared herself to die.”