Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The city is still in the middle of a heat wave and I’m trying my best to survive it.

Originally, I had hoped to go to the Papal Audience in St. Peter’s Square today, but the website warns that “As Rome can get extremely hot in the Summer, particularly in June, July, and August, and the Audience is outside, it is good to come prepared. BRING HATS, SUN SCREEN AND WATER.”

Yeah, no kidding.

The website also advises visitors to arrive two hours early for a security screening and to expect the Audience itself to last at least an hour. Because I had to reschedule my trip at the last minute, I’ve already missed seeing the new Pope on Corpus Domini. I would hate to surrender my only other chance, but I can’t bear the thought of standing for three hours or more in the boiling sun. I decide to scrap Plan A.

I devise Plan B over breakfast—which is, incidentally, still in the godforsaken basement of the Hotel Hosianum Palace, and not on the rooftop terrace. I suppose if I were to ask again this morning, the answer would be: “Madame, it is too hot.”

And maybe it is.

Plan B involved securing a last minute ticket on Viator’s half-day bus tour to Hadrian’s Villa and Villa d’Este. At least that would have allowed me to escape the burning pavement of the city and retreat to a greener locale. My bad luck with bus tours has continued, however. The phone line keeps patching me through to a call center in the United States, where the difference in time zones makes it much too early to reach anyone during business hours.

Outside of hotel rooms, air conditioning is a rarity in Rome, especially in museums. Still, I’ve exhausted my options, and at least being indoors during the heat of the day is preferable to being out. Ultimately, I settle on Plan C, a return visit to the Vatican Museums. When I was first there in 2008, I was on an organized tour that careened through the galleries at breakneck speed. Today, I’ll be able to wander at will.

Determined to avoid the museum’s notoriously long queue to get in, I buy a ticket online before leaving the hotel. I have no way to print out the confirmation page, as requested, but I have an e-mail receipt on my iPhone and it’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Despite the temperature, I’ve decided to brave a leisurely walk down Corso Vittorio Emanuele II and across the Tiber to the Via della Conciliazione. It’s noon by the time I approach St. Peter’s Square. Apparently, the Papal Audience has just let out and I’m in need of Moses to part the Red Sea of people flooding towards me, many of them sunburned to a crisp.

It’s still a long walk out and around the Vatican walls to the museum entrance, but there’s no line at all for pre-paid tickets, and the man at the counter inside doesn’t hesitate when I show him the confirmation number on my phone. At least something has gone according to plan today.

In their only gesture toward crowd control, the Vatican Museums are arranged into a one-way street, with large black arrows printed on the gallery map. There are minor deviations here and there that allow visitors to move more quickly to the Sistine Chapel, but mostly it’s like being on a theme park ride from which there is no escape once the rollercoaster has left the platform.

I devote the rest of the afternoon to inquisitive exploration. I visit the Pinacoteca for the first time, which the tour guide had bypassed entirely on my previous trip, and also the Padiglione delle Carrozze, which has an historic collection of cars and carriages, including the white jeep John Paul II was riding in when he was shot on May 13, 1981.

It’s been especially nice to see the Gallery of Maps again. I had missed seeing the island of Venice the first time around because I was rushing to catch up with the guide, but today I’ve been able to gape all I want.

The frescoes were commissioned in 1580 by Pope Gregory XIII and they’re rendered in such exquisite detail that many of the maps are navigable today, which says at least as much about the permanence of Italian architecture as it does about the skill of the artist himself. In Florence, the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore is clearly visible, as is the octagonal baptistery in front. And today in Venice, all a time traveler would have to do is pull up a chair in Piazza San Marco to feel perfectly at home in familiar surroundings.

It’s late afternoon when I emerge back onto the street. There are vendors selling colorful paper parasols to shade the sun, and people are buying them in droves. Combined with shorts and T-shirts, it makes the average tourist look like an out of place extra in a production of Madame Butterfly.

I have one last errand for the day, and it’s a special request. I’ve been challenged by a good friend from work to find the “tackiest” souvenir in Vatican City. I walk up and down the Via della Conciliazione before picking a shop that has a “We ♥ Papa Francesco” sign taped to the window, which looks promising. Inside, I find a combination key ring and bottle opener stamped with the Pope’s likeness that surely meets the mark, and I laugh when I imagine my friend wafting a prayer over a bottle of beer before popping the cap.

It’s time to catch a taxi and head back to the hotel, although this time—for the first time ever in Rome (surprisingly enough)—I’m ripped off by the cab driver. Despite showing him the address of the Hotel Hosianum Palace on a business card, he takes me somewhere else entirely, a Via dei Prefetti instead of Via dei Polacchi, and then insists on running the meter all the back to the proper destination. When we get there, I refuse to pay him in full and we settle on a smaller amount, but the experience still leaves me steamed.

I’m tired and not in the mood to go far for dinner, so I pick a table at Vinando in Piazza Margana and enjoy a good Margherita pizza with fresh mozzarella and cherry tomatoes. Feeling as much refreshed by the meal as by the cool descent of night, afterwards I decide to stroll down Via dei Fori Imperiali to take some pictures.

In The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain had described the Coliseum as a “band-box with a side bitten out… Weeds and flowers spring from its massy arches and its circling seats, and vines hang their fringes from its lofty walls. An impressive silence broods over the monstrous structure where such multitudes of men and women were wont to assemble in other days. The butterflies have taken the places of queens of fashion and beauty of eighteen centuries ago, and the lizards sun themselves in the sacred seat of the Emperor.”

As with so many evocative travelogues about Italy through the years, Twain’s words could have been written as easily today, which is a sign of the culture’s strength and resilience, just like the Gallery of Maps at the Vatican. And while inertia rarely serves modern Italy well in politics or business, it’s hard not to appreciate it here on a balmy summer’s night in Rome, when the sublime view you see is the very same view enjoyed by so many who have come before.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

It’s another glorious morning in Rome and this one begins with a sumptuous breakfast on the rooftop terrace of the Hotel Hosianum Palace, included in my room rate. With the dollar as weak as it is, I feast long and well on eggs and bacon, cornetto and cappuccino.

It’s 9:30 AM by the time I reach the Roman Forum, a site I deferred on Thursday due to rain. Rick Steves is my companion again as I enter from Via dei Fori Imperiali with my Roma Pass and iPod in hand. At this hour, the air is cool and breezy and my walk through the ruins of ancient Rome, from the Arch of Titus to the Temple of Saturn, up the Palantine Hill and back, is as pleasant as pleasant can be. As I stand staring at the spot on which Julius Caesar’s body was cremated following his assassination, something deep in the corner of my brain stirs. “Friends, Roman, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” Eleventh grade English, ingrained after all these years. The bard and Mr. Yerger would be proud.

I have to navigate through a pressing crowd and a persistent band of Gladiators next to reach the Colosseum. Do I want a bella foto with them, they ask? No, not really. Not for what they charge.

The line for pass holders is comparatively short and within ten minutes time I’m standing on the upper level of the arena looking down. It’s mammoth in size, but familiar in shape and structure. It’s like any modern sports complex, but without the product placement. When I see Ann and Mel there, too, we’re surprised yet again by the chance encounter and use the occasion to snap pictures for one another.

From here, I take a long, slow walk north through the historic center of Rome. I have a 3:00 PM reservation at the Borghese Gallery, but figure I have plenty of time to get there. I stop to wonder at the Pantheon and its giant oculus, break for gelato in Piazza Colonna, then move on to the Spanish Steps, where I’m disappointed to see that scaffolding still surrounds the obelisk at the top. It’s a stark column of gray steel, like a miniature skyscraper, obscuring the façade of the church of Trinità dei Monti.

It’s from the top of the Spanish Steps that I first notice a problem. On many levels, the free paper map in my hand is a poor substitute for the laminated, tri-fold, beauty I lost at Castel Sant’Angelo. In particular, I see now that it fails to mark the location of the Borghese Gallery. Either the museum is beyond the northern border of the map, or it’s hidden behind an ill-placed advertisement for the Castel Romano designer outlet mall!  I don’t know which. Remembering that the gallery is located in the Villa Borghese, I follow the first sign for that I see, which leads me left. As it turns out, this is a mistake. A big, honking mistake.

Once in the lush surroundings of the park, I ask a couple sitting on a park bench for directions. They point me down a long gravel path, past a playground and a carousel. From there, I spot a sign pointing towards the Galleria Borghese, which I follow in premature elation. I spy another sign that takes me in another direction, then another, and another. By the time I reach my destination at last, I’m cranky, exhausted, and very nearly late. By brain tells me that I’ve walked about three miles from the Colosseum, but to my aching body it feels more like twenty.

Walk there. What a dumb idea.

The staff at the Borghese Gallery understand human nature well. They must be determined to avoid the scene at the Sistine Chapel, because they make visitors check their bags and cameras at the door. What’s left of my belongings—my wallet and the storage card from my Nikon D40 for safe keeping—are placed in a clear plastic bag for all to see. They also insist on a reserved time slot that lasts no more than two hours. No crushing crowds here.

I rent an audioguide and join the queue outside, along with a boisterous group of young nuns. As we filter through the rooms, I have a hard time shaking them and their behavior is becoming more and more distracting. I’m trying to appreciate Canova’s neoclassical masterpiece of Paolina Borghese as Venus Victrix, but one of the nuns decides to jump up on an empty pedestal, sit there, and swing her feet. When our eyes make contact, she quickly hops down and looks away, but laughs just the same. A few minutes later, I see a baseball cap hanging from the outstretched hand of another sculpture. And, of course, there are the nuns, giggling harder than ever. I’m tempted to report them to security, but when I enter the room with Bernini’s “Apollo and Daphne,” I’m struck dumb. It’s stunning, more delicate and expressive than anything I saw at the Louvre last year. It looks like it was molded out of wax instead of marble, as if it would be soft and hot to the touch. I wouldn’t dare, of course, but I bet I could get one of the nuns to do it for me!

About halfway through the Correggio exhibit, my energy gives out at last and I decide to call it a day. I’m relieved to find a taxi nearby and ride it all the way back to my hotel, where I take a nice, long nap in my air conditioned room.

By dinner time, I feel somewhat revived. Determined to stay close to home, I turn right out of the hotel lobby instead of left. Left is the direction that brings me within yards of Piazza Venezia; right takes me to a whole other world. These are the charming streets and alleyways that border and then sink slowly into the heart of the Jewish Ghetto. There, just around the corner from my hotel, I stop to eat at “La Taverna degli Amici.” I order a house specialty, fiori di zucca (fried zucchini flowers stuffed with ricotta), followed by bombolotti with cheese and bacon. I feel a long way away from that tourist trap near the Ponte Sant’Angelo. This is how I imagine Roman food should taste, with fresh, seasonal ingredients, simply prepared.

Afterwards, still enjoying the night, I follow a steady stream of people towards the Trevi Fountain, which in reality is a massive wall of marble fronted by a pool of aqua blue. I stand with my back to the water, facing the masses, and toss a coin over my shoulder, then several more. Whether it be the stuff of legend or Hollywood movies, I’m not taking any chances. I want to ensure a return visit to Rome someday. Soon.

As I head back to the hotel, I take a slow and circuitous route that allows me to pause in front of the Pantheon one last time. There is a young man performing in front of an appreciative crowd. He trades off between violin and voice, moving from what sounds like the “Flight of the Bumblebee” to a stirring rendition of “O Sole Mio,” and finally “Che Sera.” With deliberate disregard for the exchange rate, I reward him gladly and well.

This is magic, after all.