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.

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.

Friday, July 27, 2007

My first stop of the day is the massive building directly outside my hotel window, the Panthéon. An inscription in gold lettering above the portico reads: “AUX GRANDS HOMMES LA PATRIE RECONNAISSANTE.” To great men, the grateful homeland. This is the burial place of France’s favorite sons, its best loved national heroes—Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Alexander Dumas, and many others. In 1995, when the great scientist Madame Curie became the first and only woman to be honored here, her remains and those of her husband had to be reinterred from the small town of Sceaux just outside of Paris.

It is a quiet space bathed with natural light from the rotunda, and with the exception of the young couples that congregate outside to kiss and watch the sunset over the Eiffel Tower each night, it seems to go largely unnoticed by tourists.

From there, I walk to another overlooked jewel of the Left Bank, the Musée National du Moyen Age. It is best known for a series of 15th century tapestries called “The Lady and the Unicorn,” but the museum’s collections also include important fragments of Gothic sculpture—the original apostles from the Sainte-Chapelle, and several heads from the statues of Notre Dame that were mutilated during the French Revolution. The latter were discovered thirty years ago in the basement of a Parisian bank and are thought to have been salvaged by an ardent royalist and then forgotten.

It is a pleasant and relaxed morning, far away from the maddening crowds. But things are about to get worse…

I am planning to head to Versailles tomorrow morning and given the closure of the RER line B between St-Michel and Les Invalides, getting there will be cumbersome. It will be easier, I think, to buy a combination rail and admission ticket, known as a “forfait loisirs,” today. Like the Paris Museum Pass, it not only saves money, it saves time by allowing pass holders to cut queues. But despite my best efforts in halting French, this is something I cannot manage to do, and I obsess by travelling from station to station. I am angry with myself for not buying a ticket when I had the chance the day I arrived. More than at any other time since I came to Paris, I feel helpless and lost, deeply aware of the fact that I am alone in a foreign country where I do not speak the language well. The feeling will pass, but for now it consumes me.

I finally end up back at the Gard du Nord, where I meet a sympathetic clerk at the Transilien ticket counter. She speaks excellent English. At last, I have what I need.

In looking at a map I realize that I am not terribly far from the famous Père-Lachaise cemetery. It is not a major item on my itinerary, but with some time to spare before the 2:30 PM “Paris Walks” tour of Montmartre, I decide to take the metro down for a brief look. I choose not a buy a guide at the entrance, so I walk somewhat aimlessly up and down the lanes. I know that an eclectic mix of famous people are buried here—Sarah Bernhardt, Édith Piaf, Frédéric Chopin, Jim Morrison, Marcel Proust, and Oscar Wilde—but I don’t know where. I wonder though, if in a country of brilliant minds, they are somehow considered “B list” stars, since they rest here and not at the Panthéon.

I grab two quick crêpes—one savory and one sweet—from a café across the street before heading to the Abbesses metro station to meet up with the tour. Together, we wander the back streets of Montmartre with a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide. We see the studios where Van Gogh and Renoir painted, learn a bit about Saint Denis and his famous head, and are rudely interrupted by a well-dressed drunk who insists we should know him from the newspaper. We don’t.

Afterwards, I gaze down at the rooftops of Paris from the steps of Sacré-Coeur and circle through the artist’s square, where the paintings are mediocre at best. The sky is grey and when it starts to rain I take shelter in the funicular down to the base of the hill. When I see the carousel in Square Louise Michel, I am reminded of a playful scene in the movie “Amelie,” but I’m awakened from the memory by an insistent man who wants to tie a string bracelet on my wrist. Having read the Trip Advisors forums, I know this scam well. I cross my arms, refuse to make eye contact, and push quickly by. He yells after me, but does not follow.

Back at the hotel, I follow the advice of the desk clerk and go out for Italian food at “Casa Valentino” on the Rue Saint-Jacques, topped off with a delectable combination of crème and caramel ice cream from Amorino on the Rue Soufflot. There are so many places to eat in my neighborhood, and so little time left in which to explore.

I end the night with a surprisingly short elevator ride to the observation deck of the Tour Montparnasse. It’s a tall, nondescript skyscraper that looks awkward and out of place in the Paris skyline, but the view from the top conveniently removes it from sight. From here, all of Paris is at my feet. The night is dark and the glow of the Eiffel Tower, École Militaire, Les Invalides, and the Arc de Triomphe makes the city’s greatest monuments look like stars in some constellation; the “Little Dipper” perhaps, with Notre Dame at the end of its handle.