The proper way—the erudite way—to visit Rome is to do your homework first. Since Rome’s history spans over 2,500 years, that’s a helluva lot of homework. Our decision to fly to Rome was made in a matter of days, so we arrived as Barbarians. I’m sorry to report, we departed as Barbarians as well. We just never got around to that homework.
Michelangelo’s gate leading out of the city
If you’d like a well-informed, culturally astute tour of Rome, please look elsewhere. They aren’t hard to find. What you’ll get from me is an alien’s seat-of-the-pants, slightly irreverent view, peppered with awe, satiation, and contemplation. (Okay, I did a little homework while writing this post, but you still won’t find anything about emperors or those feral children, Romulus and Remus.)
After a taxi ride from the airport, the Barbarians arrived at the gate of Porta Pia, which our AirBnB host, Gianluca, explained, was near where soldiers breached the wall on September 20, 1870, completing the unification of Italy. The gate itself was designed by Michelangelo, and even Barbarians know how awesome that is. This neighborhood just outside the city wall is close enough to walk to the center of the city if you’re feeling energetic, but far enough away to escape the tourists. It’s about a ten minute walk to the Castro Pretorio metro station, one block to the large, indoor Piazza Alessandro farmers’ market, and ten minutes to La Romana, one of the finest
When GianLuca wants to tell us something, he speaks into his phone or taps out a message, and presto! the English translation pops up in big letters. We reciprocate with Google Translate on our laptops or we just grab the phone from him and use his app. We muddle by well enough with this approach.
He’s a tax accountant (and a very clean and meticulous guy) and goes to work every day, but he took the time to print out reams of information about the sights of the city, and he shared some Mirto (Myrtle) with us, the traditional liqueur of Sardinia. Our room looks out on the central courtyard of this old building, which opens onto the street with tall wooden doors. The elevator is really old school. First you open the ornate brass gate, then the polished wooden doors, then you squeeze inside where there’s room for no more than four, squished. It climbs very slowly.
Our first sightseeing excursion was the Colosseum after dark. It’s huge—like football stadium huge. It’s not hard to imagine 50,000 Romans in the parking lot, tail-gaiting on the backs of their chariots, swilling wine, faces painted the colors of their favorite gladiator. The stones have gotten pretty dirty over the centuries, so half of it was wrapped in scaffolding for the cleaning crew. In the courtyard you could buy fancy laser lights, gee-gaws, and these confounding metal sticks that I realized two days later were “selfie sticks” that hold your IPhone or camera far enough way to take a decent selfie.
Waiting for the big game!
A selfie stick might have been useful here.
There’s only one thing in Rome that’s less than 500 years old and that’s the Metro. It only has two lines, but still manages to get you where you want to go. Where it doesn’t go, you walk, which is a pleasure in this city that gushes with grandeur.
Riding the Metro
Temple of Apollo Sosiano
The A line took us to Vatican City on the other side of the Tiber River. Here are some highlights from our whirlwind tour of the Vatican museums. We started in the Belvedere Courtyard.
Baby Bacchus Smiting a Nymph?
Then the long hall that makes up the Chiaramonti Museum.
Patrician hair salon offerings?
Who let him into the Vatican?
Followed by the Pius Clementine Museum.
Bath time with the Popes
Musing with the Popes
The Egyptian Museum.
Translation? Why did the chicken cross the road? To get away from the dead fish.
The marvelous Gallery of Maps.
The Raphael Rooms.
“The Triumph of Christianity” (Let this be a warning to you pagans)
And the Modern Religious Art collection. Some of it beautiful.
Some of it not so much.
I can’t show you a photo of the Sistine Chapel because we obeyed the rules and didn’t snap any. (We also obeyed the rules and kept silent, unlike most of the other folks in there who would shut up for a minute after an amplified voice beseeched them to in four different languages, but in no time were chattering again.) A photo wouldn’t do it justice anyway—the trompe l’oeil effect is so amazing I strained my neck trying to figure out if the cornices and other architectural features were real or not. (Not!) Astounding. You can get a closer look here: http://www.vatican.va/various/cappelle/sistina_vr/index.html
Our tour was exhausting but certainly not exhaustive. We just didn’t have enough time! I recently learned there are nine miles of museums–which would take four years to see if you allowed one minute per painting. Here’s some other interesting tidbits I gleaned from the Internet about the Vatican:
The Vatican Bank ATM allows you to select Latin to perform transactions. “Inserito scidulam.” “Nulla pin numerus.” “Centum pupa?” “Tibi de recepcione?” (My apologies to any Latin scholars out there!) In 2007, the Vatican announced it would become the first carbon neutral state by offsetting carbon emissions with the “Vatican Climate Forest” in Hungary. As yet, no trees have been planted. A long time ago there was a Pope called John Anglicus who, as it turns out, was actually Pope Joan. This was discovered when she gave birth during a procession in a narrow lane near the Colosseum. She was subsequently killed and buried there. There is apparently still a shrine in that lane, but otherwise she’s been erased, and for many years afterwards popes were carried around in a chair with a hole in the bottom to allow cardinals to check for their manhood.
After two days in Rome Jeannine headed north on the train to visit friends in Tuscany, so I was on my own. I decided I ought to round out my tour of Vatican City with a visit to the Basilica of St. Peter. St. Peter’s Square is big.
And the whole operation is kept under control by Swiss/Catholic bachelors in harlequin suits who are between the ages of 19 and 30 and at least 5 feet 8.5 inches tall.
The Swiss Guard
It took about five minutes in the Basilica before the crush of the crowd and the excesses of the Catholic Church began to weigh me down. It was all a bit gaudy for my taste.
What I’d really come to see was the Pieta. I’d imagined myself seated in front of it, contemplating its tenderness and ethereal torment for as long as I could, but it was hidden behind a curtain. Throngs pressed up against it, trying to peek through, but it was nuts. I wandered and wondered a bit more.
I must confess, this little closet had me stumped.
I was struck by the Doors of Death leading into the Basilica.
After I circled back around, I saw the curtain open, so I made my way over and crowded in with the mob. I snapped two pictures and had a long look at its pearly beauty before the guards came over and closed the curtain. I guess they were rationing transcendence on this particular day.
At the other end of the Via della Conciliazione, the grand avenue that runs directly up to St. Peter’s Square, is the Castel Sant’Angelo. It promised some good views and, since in the chaos of the crowd I had forgotten to go up to the dome of the Basilica, I thought I’d get my panorama fix there.
The ramps of the castle wind up and around, revealing little galleries and fantastic views. I kept thinking I was as high as I could go, but then I’d discover another ramp or staircase leading higher. Finally I was on the roof with a formidable archangel.
Excesses of the Bacchanal. How refreshing!
World War I Exhibit
A well-endowed knight
The Archangel Michael
Selfie with Tiber
I obsessively photographed 360 degrees of Rome’s skyline, then practiced selfies and reflected on loneliness and how it hits hardest when you’re in a crowd. Sitting in the castle café earlier I’d had my first taste of loneliness in, well . . . in my whole life really. Until two years ago, I’d only ever lived alone for less than a year, and that was the glorious year of leaving home at 17 to find myself. In the past two years, living alone without Howie, my friends were never far away and even the warm arms of my house kept me company. But here I was all alone in a foreign city surrounded by a sea of coupled people with no one to talk to. It’s an unpleasant feeling, loneliness, but I suppose enough of it will push even a diffident person to reach out to strangers for friendship.
Directly in front of the castle is the beautiful pedestrian bridge, Ponte Sant’Angelo, where there was a lot of this going on.
As the sun dropped low, I managed to find my way with a tiny map and instinct through narrow streets with fabulous shopping opportunities for those inclined, until I came upon Gelateria del Teatro, which I’m afraid has a jump on La Romana in the Best-Gelato-in-Rome race. White Peach and Lavender. Raspberry with Sage. Move over, La Romana!
I found myself at Piazza Navona (probably the prettiest piazza in Rome, although I haven’t seen them all) and finally the Trevi Fountain. I had no idea what to expect—it was like I was on a blind date with Rome. And I must say, the Trevi Fountain needs to take itself off okcupid.com until it gets its act together! I could see there was a creature of great beauty behind all that scaffolding and plexiglass, but he just wasn’t emotionally available! That didn’t stop the long line of suitors, though. As for me—maybe next time. The Piazza Navona was blasting Pink Floyd, then Stairway to Heaven. I later encountered this same play list in other piazzas.
Trevi Fountain under construction
The next morning Gianluca told me about the Saturday antique market at the Piazza Porta Pia. First thing I spotted? A Swiss Army knife. Yes! Just like the one I had recently donated to airport security in Johannesburg, but aptly equipped with a corkscrew instead of a screwdriver.
In order to counter the religious excesses of the Vatican, I walked to the Franciscan church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, which houses a tiny underground six-chapel crypt decorated with the skeletal remains of several thousand Capuchin friars. At this point, you are either saying Ew! or Cool! which are both valid reactions, but those in the Cool camp come in two different flavors: those who love the creepiness of the macabre and those who feel a tenderness toward mummies and bones. I am of the latter party. I’m also fond of the Capuchins, who, in their practices of austerity, poverty and charity, adhere more closely to the life of St. Francis of Assisi than conventional Franciscans. And I have no pictures to show you because I followed the rules and didn’t snap any. (I am not always this compliant—but you’ve got to respect the dead).
I spent a long time in there communing with the bones and writing in my journal. I felt a reverence here in this humble place that I hadn’t felt across the river. The floor of each chapel holds a few graves with simple wooden crosses, but the walls and ceilings are ornamented with exceptional care and creativity. Bone lamps hang in the corridor, and there are skulls with wings, bones in the shape of stars, flowers, and fanciful patterns, even the Franciscan emblem of two arms crossing. There are whole skeletons in their brown robes, reclining or standing, and one on the ceiling holding a scale and scythe. There’s even a bone clock representing time into eternity and an hourglass winged with shoulder blades to remind us that time flies by. The chapels have descriptive names: The Crypt of Skulls, of Shin Bones and Thigh Bones, of Pelvises. And ingenious uses are made of these different shapes.
I felt no revulsion here—I thought of how all these bones once hung with the flesh and blood of a person whom someone once loved and grieved. To me, and surely to the unknown artist(s) who labored here, bones are the elegant architectural elements of our bodies, sacred and miraculous artifacts of our creation. The adornment of these chapels was a celebration of this and an act of creative grieving—turning bereavement into beauty. They also vividly and viscerally remind us of the inevitability of death, embracing it rather than turning away.
The last chamber has no bones but serves as a chapel to celebrate the mass of the dead. In the first chamber, The Crypt of Three Skeletons, a placard declares: “What you are now, we used to be; what we are now, you will be.”
The Barberini Family Crest features bees.
After my idyll with death, I visited the National Gallery of Antique Art in the Palazzo Barberini, one of those old villas where the upper class adorned their walls and ceilings with the great masters. Only the first floor was open but that was plenty. If you’re in Rome and you love art, don’t miss this museum. Here are some highlights.
The Creation of the World
The Divine Wisdom
Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes
The Triumph of Divine Providence
The Vestal Tuccia
There was an intriguing green space on the map called the Quirinale. I figured it must be a big city park so I headed that way, carrying a little bag of lunch. I found the enclosing wall and walked around it and around it and around it and then through some god-awful tunnel and then back around to the other side where, and this is the downside to being a Barbarian, I discovered it wasn’t a park at all, but the President’s palace. They sure weren’t going to let me picnic in there. The piazza by the main gate was cordoned off and crowds were gathering. It was the changing of the guard, so I hung out and watched the guys in white and the guys in green march back and forth with guns while the band played along.
The Spanish Steps with Keat’s house on the right
When Jeannine returned we embarked on the Rick Steve’s Heart of Rome Walk (which I downloaded to my Kindle), starting backwards at the Piazza di Spagna, those famous Spanish Steps you always hear about. They’re steps, yep. Not so sure why they’re famous, except John Keats lived and died there. And Shelley and Lord Byron hung out with him there, too. Pretty inspiring to a poet. And Jeannine was inspired to play When I Paint My Masterpiece later on her guitar, even though Dylan calls them the Spanish Stairs. It’s hard to find a good rhyme with Steps.
From the Steps, Rick took us to the Trevi Fountain. We had a peek through the plexiglass and then we partook of a ritual performed by millions of tourists: tossing a coin over your shoulder into the fountain (it’s supposed to promise you’ll return one day). Only the fountain was dry. But a small pool was provided behind a sign that said “Throw coins here.” We’ll see if that counts.
Next we followed Rick to the Piazza Colonna, an impressively tall column, but we passed on his gelato shop recommendation. Too touristy and probably not that good. Having done some research, I learned how to shop for gelato: Avoid pretty, puffy displays (thickeners!) and bright colors (artificial!). Look for shops where you can see them actually making it.
Rome has lots of tall pointy things.
Rick was nice enough to lead us to an Egyptian obelisk set up as a sundial in the Piazza di Montecitoria, but he didn’t bother to explain how it works. From what I can glean from the Internet, it doesn’t work. This obelisk, which was brought to Rome by Augustus in 10 BC has a long history of rising, falling to pieces, being rediscovered then resurrected, and ultimately moved to its current location in the late 18th century. One sundial-geek sight on the web concludes, with undecipherable (to me) calculations that it probably never worked very well.
The Barbarians knew our next stop, the Pantheon, by name only. Turns out it’s a round church with a mighty fine dome, lots of Corinthian columns, and a wondrous, colorful marble floor. It also contains the tomb of Raphael. And like the Sistine Chapel, a disembodied voice kept asking the crowd to hush.
Even he couldn’t pick gelato, Rick had the good sense to bring us back to the Piazza Navona, which of course Jeannine hadn’t seen so we hung out there for a while mostly snapping photos of the magnificent Four Rivers Fountain. I haven’t mentioned Bernini yet, but I’d been keeping my eye on him. He’s all over Rome and whatever he touches is elevated to the realm of the sublime. This fountain is one of his greatest works. Rick explained that the four figures in the fountain are water gods of the known continents in 1650: the Nile, the Ganges, the Danube and the Rio de la Plata.
The Rio de la Plata
We ended our date with Rick at the lively Piazza Campo de’ Fiori with a glass of wine.
This amorous couple seems unconcerned that the guy above them was burned as a heretic.
For dinner we feasted on anchovies and truffle pasta at a traditional Roman restaurant called Armando al Pantheon. It was Jeannine’s farewell dinner. After two months as intrepid, companionable, and compatible travel buddies, we were parting ways. Jeannine had to go home. And I was on my own.
On my own and feeling sick the next day. Nevertheless, I’d booked a spot at the Villa Borghese museum, so off I went to take in some serious Bernini.
Bernini’s Appolo e Dafne
Bernini’s Ratto di Proserpina
Some more superb floors and ceilings.
And some Caravaggio. I eavesdropped on a tour and heard the guide explain that this painting, The Madonna dei Palafrenieri, was commissioned for an altar in St. Peter’s but was subsequently rejected because the Madonna was a bit too buxom for the clergy.
On my last day in Rome I went across the river to Trastevere. In addition to not feeling well, I had Rome fatigue, so I have to confess I was underwhelmed– splendid architecture and quaint cobblestone streets just weren’t doing it for me.
I wandered until I came upon the Basilica di Santa Maria, unusual in that the outside is painted with palm trees and Magi bearing gifts. Inside was as glittery as any other Roman church, but the art had a more Coptic feel. I later learned that this is one of the oldest churches in Rome.
I sat down inside and before long realized I was a wedding guest! Not just me, there were plenty of tourists in there, but no one seemed to mind. There was a smattering of properly attired real guests filing in, then came the wedding party, bridesmaids on the arms of ushers, the mother of the bride beaming. Finally a white sports car drove up delivering the bride with her father. The groom joined her at the altar on velvet stools. The priest began with a Latin prayer, but then spoke in English with an Irish accent. Family members got up and read scripture, with American accents. No wonder it was such a small wedding party—they had flown across the ocean to get married in Rome. The priest rambled on with copious counsel on building a strong marriage, using a dance analogy—you’ve got to find the right partner and work together and so forth. All good advice, but isn’t it odd that celibate priests advise couples on how to have a good marriage?
So, there you have it. A slice of Rome. Here are some more photos of this most photogenic of cities.
In the old Jewish Ghetto
The locals don’t like this Fascist-era building. They call it the Typewriter.
Custom hat shop
Taking the cat out for a stroll
The Moses Fountain
I wonder what they’re plotting?