Monday, June 17, 2013

There is more celebrating to do in Pisa today, but things will have to go on without me.

It’s the feast day of San Ranieri and there will be a regatta on the Arno late this afternoon in honor of the city’s patron saint. Teams of oarsmen representing each of the four neighborhoods will row against the current, down to the Palazzo Medici, and climb a rope to grab a flag at the top of a ten meter pole mounted at the finish line. I’m tempted to stay—of course, I am—but it’s too long to wait and I’m not in the mood to jockey for a position in the crowd. Besides, I’m eager to set off for Rome. This is the final leg of my journey and I’m already feeling the weight of shrinking days.

My train arrives at just past two, and soon I’m in a cab heading for the Hotel Hosianum Palace, a snug and sunny place with yellow stucco and green shutters on a tiny street near Piazza Venezia. I’ve booked a single room at a reduced rate for a four night stay, so I’m surprised when the clerk behind the desk upgrades me to a far more spacious double. I’ve stayed here twice before, and they’re grateful for my loyalty.

By now, I’m starving, but I’ve arrived too late for a proper lunch. I decide to walk down to the Jewish Ghetto—one of my very favorite neighborhoods in Rome—to grab a sandwich from a take-out counter instead.

As I head out of the hotel lobby and turn right, I’m greeted by a rabbit’s warren of ancient lanes. I continue on, through Piazza Margana and along Via dei Delfini. Within minutes, I emerge, just as I thought I would, through a small passageway between Da Giggetto and the elegant ruins of Porto d’Ottavia. I’m surprised that I haven’t gotten lost, but the happy memories I’ve made here through the years are scattered like bread crumbs and they help me find the way.

I’m walking with no particular destination in mind, other than to reacquaint myself with the city. In Italian Hours, the great novelist cum travel writer, Henry James wrote about those who “ramble irresponsibly and take things as they come.” My goal for the remains of the day is little more than that, and before long it summons to me what James had called “the smile of Rome.”

I stop and sit by the turtle fountain in Piazza Mattei, and then continue on past the charming triangular square in front of the church of Santa Barbara ai Librari to Campo de’ Fiori, which is pulsing with the energy of an amiable crowd. Along the way, I see a sign in a shop window that reads: “A man who drinks only water has a secret to hide from his fellow men.” I laugh out loud and think again about the waiter in Venice who scolded me for being a “woman who no drink wine.” I wonder what secrets I’ve been keeping from the world?

By now, it’s late afternoon and there is a blistering summer sun that slants wickedly in the sky overhead, radiating off the pavement. I move out of the open square and seek out the shade of narrow streets on a pilgrimage to the Pantheon.

George Eliot once called Rome “the city of visible history,” and so it is. It’s impossible to be here in Piazza della Rotonda and not stand in awe of the Pantheon’s massive marble columns, its pediment, and its vast, flat dome. Even centuries after its construction in the first century AD, it was such an impressive feat of engineering that Filippo Brunelleschi studied it before drafting his own plans for the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence.

Nearby, I pause to watch a pair of street performers. They are cross-legged and silent, holding prayer beads. One is mysteriously levitating above the other with no means of visible support, aside from a single raised hand holding a pole. It’s a good trick and there is group of American college students clustered around them, examining the men with a careful eye. No one seems able to figure it out, and that for me merits an easy Euro tip.

I circle back, past the shop window of Ghezzi Luciano, where there are ornate monstrances and chasubles and mitres on display—a reminder that Vatican City and the Holy See are just across the Tiber. When I emerge onto Corso Vittorio Emanuele, the street is throbbing with the noise of rush hour traffic. I cross over at the light and stop at Largo di Torre Argentina to visit the feral cats who sprawl across the ruins at the sanctuary there, clearly enjoying the heat of day far more than I. By now, the air conditioning back in my room at the hotel is beckoning.

When I venture out again for dinner at eight, the air feels thick, but the sun has fallen behind the roofline and the atmosphere is more pleasant. I walk across the Ponte Palatino to Trastevere, where I settle into a table on the patio of Il Ponentino, under the shade of an umbrella. The waiter comes by and I order a bruschetta to start, and then a plate of cacio e pepe, a simple pasta dish made with cheese and pepper that I had once enjoyed in Arezzo. Tonight, however, my pronunciation reduces the man to peels of laughter, and he warns me, in English, that I should be careful how I say that. I’m not entirely sure, but I think I’ve mistakenly asked for a rather private part of the male anatomy. Tommaso, at the Hotel Davanzati in Florence, was fond of correcting my pitiful Italian. If he were here, undoubtedly he would find that very funny, indeed.

I walk along the Tiber after dinner, through the stalls of the Lungo il Tevere Roma festival, where temporary bars and restaurants have sprung up for the summer. There is live music here and there, and scores of vendors selling clothing and jewelry.

In writing about his trip to Rome, Henry James complained about a “general oppressive feeling that the city of the soul has become for the time a monstrous mixture of watering-place and curiosity-shop and that its most ardent life is that of the tourists who haggle over false intaglios and yawn through palaces and temples.“ It’s a fair enough point, I suppose, when I think about the cheap baubles at the fair and at the hordes of visitors, driven by the impulse to say I WAS HERE, who pose in front of the Pantheon with barely a glance backwards to marvel at the building itself. And yet, he said, “you are told of a happy time when these abuses begin to pass away, when Rome becomes Rome again and you may have her all to yourself.”

By the time I reach the Ponte Palatino, the bridge is quiet and there is a dusky peach sky behind the dome of St. Peter’s. I stop to take a picture, to capture a fleeting moment in time.

Rome is Rome once more, and she is mine.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Some of my fondest memories of the Hotel Hosianum Palace are of having breakfast on the rooftop terrace, high among the church spires and the winged chariots that perch on top of the Vittorio Emanuele monument. That was on my first trip to Italy in 2008. When I returned two years later, the terrace was closed and when I inquired as to the reason, the man at the reception desk said bluntly: “Madame, it is too cold.”

In point of fact, the weather was perfect.

Alas, this morning, there is a sign yet again directing guests to the breakfast room in the basement. Surely, with temperatures soaring into the 90s, it is no longer too frigid to sit outdoors—even by sensitive Italian standards—so I ask the manager for an explanation, pointing to the envelope that holds my key card. It reads: “From May 15 till September (weather permitting), the morning American breakfast will be served on the Roof Garden of the fifth floor from 7:30 a.m. till 10:30 a.m. where besides tasting a rich breakfast, you can enjoy an incomparable view of the roofs of Rome.”

Why, exactly, is the terrace closed in the middle of June, I ask? “Madame,” I am told, “It has been too wet.”

Now, things are getting perfectly ridiculous. It’s hasn’t rained here in weeks. The last measureable precipitation Rome had was on June 4, the day I flew to Venice, and even that was just a tenth of an inch. Personally, I think the staff don’t want to be bothered hauling food up to the roof, even though there is an elevator.

I’m still annoyed later, as I walk up Via del Corso in search of a Vodaphone store. I need to top up the minutes on my SIM card. When I see a Uomo Nuovo demonstration spilling out of Piazza Colonna, it inspires me to protest an injustice of my own. Perhaps I should rally the guests back at the hotel to storm the barricades tomorrow morning, to fight for our right to dine al fresco.

I cut over toward Piazza Navona to wander about the square, with its lively mix of street performers and artists’ stalls, and I visit the Baroque church of Sant’Agnese in Agone. From there, though, I grab a taxi to the Museo Nazionale Romano at Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, near the train station. It’s another blistering day and it’s much too far to walk.

The National Museum is one I’ve long overlooked, as do many tourists, it would seem, because the halls are nearly empty. There is a fine collection of Roman sculptures, including a marble copy of the original bronze discus thrower, his torso twisted and his muscles flexed. There’s also a large numismatic section, with more than 5,000 coins demonstrating the evolution of the Roman monetary system.

For me, though, the most impressive artifacts by far are the frescoes and mosaics. There’s a large floor mosaic with muses and mythological scenes from a villa along the Via Cassia, dating from the 3rd century A.D., and another depicting the struggle between Dionysus and the Indians from the Villa Ruffinella during the first half of the 4th century A.D.

It’s hard to imagine the time involved in creating such an intricate, and ultimately utilitarian, surface. There are thousands of individually cut pieces of stone—called tesserae—most no larger than a centimeter across. And they’re carefully placed in gradations of color, as if pulled from an artist’s palate, which creates a realistic sense of shape and dimension.

There are also a number of stunning room frescoes, including one from an underground triclinium at the Villa of Livia. Discovered in 1863, but dating back to the 1st century B.C., the room has been reinstalled here and it shows a lush garden with ornamental plants and birds drawn to such an exacting level of detail that most species are identifiable today. There are quince and pomegranate and boxwood trees, as well as poppies, ferns, violets, and irises.

As I walk toward Piazza della Reppublica afterwards, the oppressive heat that has descended on the city makes me wish I had lingered longer in the painted garden inside. But there are a number of sites I am determined to see, and my map looks like a game of connect the dots, with a long zig-zag line that stops at the Spanish Steps.

Across the street, I can see the crumbling brick wall that is the entrance to the basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli. It’s a Baroque church inside, designed in part by Michelangelo, but it was built within of the ancient frigidarium of the Baths of Diocletian, which makes the space refreshingly cool. If I can find a pleasant oasis like this every hour or so, I just might be able to get through the day.

I continue on along Via Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, hoping to see Bernini’s “Ecstasy of Saint Teresa” at Santa Maria della Vittoria, but by the time I arrive, the church is closed for the afternoon. It’s scheduled to reopen soon, but I don’t want to stand in the sun and wait, so I turn down Via Barberini instead and stop for a late lunch in an air conditioned cafeteria. Then, I veer off and climb the stairs to the Capuchin Crypt on Via Venato.

On my first trip to Italy in 2008, I visited the Catacombs of San Callisto along the old Appian Way, but nothing has prepared me for this, not even the catacombs beneath the streets of Paris. There are alcoves of human bones, sectioned into parts—skulls in one, thigh bones in another, pelvises in a third, and so on—like a grandiose Halloween display. These are the remains of nearly 4,000 Capuchin monks, collected over the centuries and moved here in the early 18th century, to make room for new bodies in the friary’s small cemetery.

But the bones are not merely in neat stacks, as they are in Paris, with an occasional decorative flourish. They are woven into elaborate designs, including a skeletal grim reaper, holding scales and a scythe made of vertebrae. In The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain had called it “a spectacle for sensitive nerves,” and so it is. He had wondered then how it might feel to be a Capuchin, to know that one day you would be “taken apart like an engine or a clock or like a house whose owner is gone, and worked up into arches and pyramids and hideous frescoes.” I find myself pondering the same morbid question. I leave grateful, though, because at least it was cool inside.

By the time I reach the Trevi Fountain, it’s after four o’clock and the heat of the day suddenly feels worse because of the congested crowd. Would anyone mind if I waded in, like Sylvia in the movie La Dolce Vita? Yes, I suppose they would.

There’s a souvenir stand directly in front of the fountain today, and the vendor is selling magnets and ashtrays alongside of bobblehead dolls, snow globes, and plastic Pietàs. It’s horribly tacky stuff. In his infinite wisdom, the mayor of Rome has banned tourists from eating and drinking near public monuments, but not this monstrosity, even though it’s an assault on good taste that’s every bit as bad, if not worse.

My final stop for the day is a social one. A colleague of mine from work is in Rome for a few days attending a conference. We’ve agreed to meet at the fountain at the base of the Spanish Steps. We order drinks at Babington’s Tea Room, a cozy and very English place, and then take the elevator to the top of the hill to reach his hotel, the Intercontinental de la Ville. It has a stunning terrace overlooking the city, and he wants me to see it.

Unlike the rooftop terrace at my hotel, this one actually is open.

Yes, I’m still bitter, but a least for an hour or so, I can pretend that it’s mine.

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.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

I blink at my wristwatch and can’t quite believe it. Against all odds, my flight is going to arrive into Fiumicino on time at 8:45 AM. This is a surprise given (in my experience) the general and combined incompetence of Philadelphia International Airport and U.S. Airways.

Gratified, but tired nevertheless, I stumble with the rest of the passengers through passport control and then baggage claim before meeting a driver from Rome Cabs, which I pre-booked online some weeks ago. He’s holding a sign with my surname, but it’s preceded by the title “Mr.” instead of “Ms.” My brain is still wakening, so that’s close enough for me. The driver, however, seems genuinely pleased by the slight misunderstanding. He introduces himself as Maurizio and he is a credit to the reputation of Italian men everywhere, charming and flirtatious.

Our immediate departure is complicated by my desire to do two things before I leave the airport: buy a Roma Pass and extract Euros from an ATM machine. The first is a matter of convenience, the second of necessity. After all, Maurizio has to be paid. He is, however, remarkably unconcerned about this as he carries my suitcase happily through the international arrivals hall in Terminal C.

We discover that the kiosk that sells the Roma Pass is not yet open for the day, and that the Bancomat across the aisle is likewise out of service. So far, we’re batting zero for two, but Maurizio assures me that I’ll be able to buy a Roma Pass along the Via del Corso easily enough and that there are plenty of cash machines in the city. Not to worry.

He talks and tells me stories all the way from the airport to my hotel near Piazza Venezia. The journey takes longer than I expected and, in fact, becomes something of a private guided tour. I have never been to Rome before and he tells me that she is two different cities—one by day, the other by night. I ask him to explain, and when he does, I see his eyes brighten, framed in the rear view mirror. “Rome by night,” he says, “is magic.”

Somewhere between our stops at cash machines two and three (two simply spit my card out without explanation), Maurizio and a swerving Vespa nearly collide. The guy on the Vespa has some anger management issues and pounds on the hood of the car. Heated words are exchanged, as are gestures that transcend any language barrier. Maurizio assures me that everything is fine and continues to talk pleasantly to me in English as if this kind of thing happens all the time.

When at last he carries my bag into the lobby of the Hotel Hosianum Palace on Via dei Polacchi, he slips me his card. He wonders if I might meet him for dinner the following night. I am flattered, perhaps because I know how frightful I look after an overnight flight, or maybe it’s because I am going to mark a milestone birthday later this summer and Maurizio thinks I look young. Nevertheless, I decline and hope afterwards that I have done it gracefully. My time in Rome will be short and there is so much to see.

I recognize two passengers from my flight, waiting to check in. They introduce themselves as Ann and Mel from Denver and we chat pleasantly for a few minutes while our rooms are assigned. Our itineraries sound much the same, so I wonder if I’ll stumble into them again somewhere in the tourist crowds.

When I open the door to my room on the third floor, what I find is small and irregularly shaped, but beautifully appointed and utterly cozy. There is a twin size bed covered in a gold damask spread, a nightstand with minibar, a desk on which rests a flat-panel TV, and a wardrobe for hanging clothes with an electronic safe below. The ceiling is high, framed by an ornate crown molding. A single shuttered window opens onto a view of the narrow street below. Bellissimo!

By now, it’s lunch time and the gray sky outside is spitting rain. I buy a Roma Pass at the tourist information booth on Via del Corso, but given the weather opt for a change of plans and head not to the Colosseum and Roman Forum, but to the shelter of the Capitoline Museum instead. Getting there proves to be a battle of epic proportions. In zig zagging across the streets that merge into Piazza Venezia, I suddenly feel like I’m in a real life version of the old arcade game, “Frogger.” No one brakes for pedestrians, and the traffic signals seem little more than advisory. I stand there stupidly for a while, but when an Italian woman in business attire approaches the curb next to me and steps off without a moment’s hesitation, I leap forward to her right, using her as a shield between my own body and the steel of oncoming traffic. She is Moses parting the Red Sea. The traffic does not come to a complete standstill, but it folds itself neatly around us as we walk. It’s a brilliant move, but one that should come with a disclaimer that reads: “Warning! Tourists crossing street must be accompanied by a citizen of Rome.”

Once I am safely delivered to the steps of the Victor Emmanuel II monument, I circle around it and climb Michelangelo’s long, sloping steps to the Piazza del Campidoglio. I devour a tomato and mozzarella panini at the museum café under a canopy on the terrace, and enjoy my first sustained view of the city. Afterwards, the museum itself is an unexpected delight. I pop in the earbuds to my iPod Nano and use the audioguide I downloaded in advance from the museum’s website to navigate from one room to the next. I see Romulus, Remus and the She-Wolf, the famous bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback, and various disassembled parts from the colossal statue of the Emperor Constantine that once stood by the Colosseum—a disembodied head, a foot, and a hand with the index finger pointing up, like one of those giant foam mitts you see at football games. I can just imagine ancient spectators chanting “We will, we will, rock you…” while watching gladiators and beasts engage in mortal combat.

It’s still raining when I leave the museum, but it does nothing to dampen my mood. I am falling in love with Rome already. I walk past the Colosseum, trying to visualize where Constantine once stood in narcissistic glory, then down Via San Giovanni in Laterano to the Basilica of San Clemente. It’s a perfectly lovely 12th century church, with a beautiful apse mosaic, but the layers of history underneath are even better—a 4th century Christian church with remnants of its original frescoes, and deeper still, the remains of a 1st century Pagan temple.

From there I wander slowly uphill to San Pietro in Vincoli. Here in a reliquary under the altar are the iron chains that bound St. Peter when he was imprisoned in Jerusalem. To the right is a monument to Julius II, the warrior pope who diverted Michelangelo from work on a more grandiose tomb to paint the Sistine Chapel. Due to declining funds and the pope’s own faltering reputation, the original plans were never fulfilled following his death in 1513, but Michelangelo’s statue of “Moses,” seated at the center, survives.

By now it’s late afternoon and the sky has cleared. On my way back to the hotel to rest up and change for dinner, I pause to watch a group of firemen rappel down the face of the Colosseum. It seems like a daring move. Someone in the crowd says that they are practicing for the big “Republic Day” parade, where they’ll unfurl a giant Italian flag. I wish I could be there to see it, but I have a reserved seat on a train to Florence first thing Monday morning.

For my first night in Rome, I settle on “La Polarolla” for dinner, near Campo de’ Fiori. It’s 8:00 PM when I arrive and with the time change and the local custom of eating late, I’m starved. But in my inaugural attempt at Italian dining I find myself drowning in food after just two courses. Antipasti, primi piatti, secondi piatti, contorno, dolci, caffé. How do they do it? The cannelloni is very good, as is the pollo porchettato (chicken with bacon and herbs), but I’m left with no room for gelato, which seems like a grave miscalculation.

After strolling around Campo de’ Fiori to walk off my dinner, I linger in Piazza Navona. Bernini’s “Fountain of the Four Rivers” is still under scaffolding, but in the darkness it hardly matters. With half flood lit, it’s still an impressive sight. I look around and see artists selling their wares and street vendors tossing glow stick rings high into the sky. Three tenors with guitars are singing a rousing rendition of “Funiculì, Funiculà” to the delight of diners at the “Caffé Dolce Vita.” The sweet life. That’s what la dolce vita means, and being here in Rome on this night, with the pulse of human existence all around me, I understand more than its literal translation into English.

Maurizio was right. Rome by night is magic.

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.