Top 10 Things to Do in Rome, Italy

Top 10 Things to Do in Rome, Italy

In writing to a friend while on “The Grand Tour” of Europe in 1870, a young graduate of Harvard University named Roger Swaim, lamented his arrival in Rome. He had been to France already and would later continue on to Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and the Holy Lands, but not before making a thorough visit of all the conventional sites—the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican—and he was not looking forward to it. “Oh dear! Here is this awful task of Rome on my hands, a mass of brick to investigate [and] excavations to penetrate.” Exhausted and overwhelmed, he felt that he should only “appreciate Rome after getting away,” for it would take time to forget its “filth and discomforts.”

For travelers today, it’s still possible to experience the grittiness of Swain’s Rome, but it’s just as easy to conjure the magnificence of a city built by emperors like Titus and Hadrian, or to bask in the Baroque splendor of art created by the hands of Caravaggio and Bernini. Rome is ever evolving and pulsing with the energy of history and human emotion. It is, after all, the Eternal City, and there is always more than enough to see. Here, though, is a short list that begins to scratch the surface. By the end of your stay, you will want to return time and again to excavate its many layers.


An interactive map of the sites recommended in this article:

#10

Climb the Capitoline Hill and gaze out across the ruins of ancient Rome

The city of Rome was built upon seven ancient hills—the Aventine, Caelian, Capitoline, Esquiline, Palatine, Quirinal, and Viminal. Begin your visit at the Capitoline Hill at a treacherous intersection of streets near Piazza Venezia. To the right of the massive Vittorio Emanuele II monument, variously derided as a “wedding cake” or a “giant typewriter,” climb the cordonata, a set of long sloping steps that lead the Piazza del Campidoglio, where an impressive equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius dominates the space. What you see is a copy of the bronze original, which can be viewed in the adjacent Capitoline Museum, a meandering collection of galleries housed in the Renaissance palaces that surround the square. It’s well worth an entire afternoon’s visit, but for now, continue forward, either to the left or the right of the Palazzo del Senatore, until you reach a terrace overlooking the Roman Forum.

You are standing at the center of Rome and the ruins you see are the remnants of some of the city’s most important civic buildings. Look for the Temple of Saturn, the Temple of Vesta, and the church of San Luca e Martina and try to imagine their grandeur. Look to the distance then and you can see the Arch of Titus and the Colosseum. When the British novelist Charles Dickens visited Rome in the mid-19th century, he stood before the Colosseum and said that to “see it crumbling there, an inch a year; its walls and arches overgrown with green; its corridors open to the day… is to the see the ghost of old Rome, wicked, wonderful old city, haunting the very ground on which its people trod.”

LOCATION:  To reach the terrace, head to Piazza del Campidoglio, and for entrance to the Colosseum and the Roman Forum continue on and look for Piazzale del Colosseo, along Via dei Fori Imperiali.

HOURS:  The Capitoline Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9:00 AM until 8:00 PM; the Colosseum and Roman Forum are open in the summer from 8:30 AM-7:15 PM. Click here for hours at other times of year.  

COST:  Admission is €13 for the Capitoline Museum; a combination ticket to the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and Roman Forum costs €12 and can be purchased online to avoid a lengthy queue. Purchasing a RomaPass instead for €34 might be a worthwhile investment, depending on the number of days you have in Rome and the number of museums you plan to see.

TIP:   While virtually no one appreciates the aesthetics of the Vittorio Emanuele II monument at Piazza Venezia, there is an elevator at the back of the building that will whisk you to the top for a panoramic view of the city for just €7.

WEBSITES:  The Capitoline Museum; the Colosseum and Roman Forum

#9

Stand beneath the dome of the Pantheon to marvel at a feat of ancient engineering

Built during the reign of Hadrian around 126 AD, the Pantheon is thought to be the best preserved building from ancient Rome. With its elegant pediment and massive Corinthian columns, it may not look like a house of worship, but it is indeed a temple whose name is derived from a Greek word meaning All Gods. It is best known, however, for its coffered dome, which was considered such a feat of engineering, even centuries later, that Filippo Brunelleschi traveled here in an effort to uncover its secrets before starting work on his own massive dome in Florence on the basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore. The circular opening in the center of the dome—an oculus—allows daylight to illuminate the interior.

Afterwards, be sure to sit and linger by the obelisk in Piazza della Rotunda, or break for an espresso in one of the local cafés. It is a lively square and you are certain to be entertained by something interesting, whether it is a talented street musician, or a curious pair of levitating men in orange robes and turbans.

LOCATION:  Piazza della Rotunda

COST:  Free

HOURS:  Always open

WEBSITE:  The Pantheon

#8

Travel along the ancient Appian Way and descend into the catacombs of San Callisto

The Appian Way was one of the most important roads in ancient Rome. Once upon a time, its cobblestone pavement began at the Circus Maximus and continued on past the Baths of Caracalla, all the way to the port city of Brindisi. Beneath the surface, there are scores of underground tunnels where the early Christians buried their dead, and today, many of these “catacombs” are open for guided tours.

For a pleasant break from the urban intensity of Rome, travel out along the Appian Way to enjoy the open green space and a multitude of worthwhile sites, including the remains of a sophisticated system of aqueducts. Then, on the way back, stop at the Catacombs of San Callisto to explore a massive burial site that once held the bones of half a million Christians, as well as nine popes and numerous martyrs.

GETTING THERE:  The catacombs are reachable by public transportation (see this link for details), but the route is time-consuming. Instead, I’d recommend taking the Archeobus, a hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus that begins its route in central Rome and then travels out along Via Appia Antica with a direct stop at the catacombs of San Callisto. Tickets cost €12 for adults and are valid for 48 hours. A family discount is available.

An organized bike tour is another fun option.

HOURS:  The catacombs of San Callisto are open daily (except on Christmas,  New Year’s Day and Easter Sunday) from 9:00 AM-12:00 PM and again from 2:00 PM-5:00 PM.

COST:  Admission to the catacombs is €8.

TIP:  The catacombs of San Callisto extend deep into the ground. It gets chilly down there, so taking a jacket is advisable, even in the summer.

WEBSITES: Appia Antica Park; Catacombs of San Callisto; the Park of the Appia Antica; Archeobus

#7

Spy the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica through a not-so-secret keyhole on the Aventine Hill

If you are in the mood for an interesting quest on a lazy afternoon, check your map and make your way to Piazza Cavalieri di Malta, where guidebooks promise a “secret keyhole” in a door that reveals a perfectly framed view of St. Peter’s Basilica through a tunnel of pruned hedge.

Look for the worn green door that guards the entrance to the garden of Priory of the Knights of Malta. It’s surprisingly easy to spot, because there is often a small crowd of people queuing for the chance to press their eyes and camera lenses against the keyhole. It may be a well-discovered “secret,” but it’s still as delightful as peering into a doll’s house through an old-fashioned shadow box.

LOCATION:  Piazza Cavalieri di Malta.

COST:  Free

TIP:  Taking a photograph through the keyhole is a tough shot because you have to get both the door and the dome in focus simultaneously. Be prepared to try and try again until you get it right, or do as I did and take a picture of each, then join them together using Photoshop.

WEBSITE:  ItalyGuides.it

#6

Stray off the beaten path and explore the narrow lanes of the Jewish Ghetto

Rome may be an intense and noisy city, but stray slightly off the beaten path into an historic neighborhood known as the Jewish Ghetto—tucked between the Vittorio Emanuele II monument and the Tiber River near Isola Tiberina—and you will find a maze of narrow alleyways that spill out into small piazzas, each more charming than the last.

If you are in the mood for culture and history, visit the Jewish Museum of Rome at the Great Synagogue, but if not, devote an afternoon to wandering aimlessly about the streets. Eventually, you will stumble upon the Bernini turtles that perch on the basin of the Fontana delle Tartarughe in Piazza Mattei, and the crumbling, remains of the Portico d’Ottavia, as well as host of enticing restaurants, shops, and boutiques.

If you stay for dinner, order a plate of carciofi alla giudia—Jewish-style artichokes, deep-fried to a luscious, golden brown.

LOCATION:  The Jewish Museum and synagogue are located on Lungotevere Dè Cenci.

HOURS:  The Jewish Museum and synagogue are open Sunday through Thursday, 10:00 AM-5:00 PM (summer hours are extended to 7:00 PM), and Friday from 9:00 AM-2:00 PM; closed on Saturdays and Jewish holidays.

COST:  Admission to the Jewish museum and synagogue costs €11 for adults, €8 for those over age 65, and €4 for students.

TIP:  While in the vicinity, considering making a short detour to Largo di Torre Argentina, where there is a sanctuary for abandoned cats. You’ll see dozens of them lounging about on the ancient ruins, and donations to help with their care are gratefully accepted.

WEBSITES:  Museo Ebraico di RomaJewish Ghetto Walk (Rick Steves); Echoes from the Roman Ghetto (The New York Times); Foodie’s Guide to Rome’s Jewish Quarter (Fodor’s)

#5

It’s mangia time!

Eating in Rome is an elevated art form, best enjoyed slowly with family and friends over a bottle or two of wine. But even if you’re travelling solo, take the time to dine out and dine well. Where else can you sip a cappuccino while reading a book in one of the oldest cafés in Italy—the venerable Antica Caffè Greco, on Via dei Condotti? And where else can you indulge as happily and as cheaply as you can here with a slice of pizza al taglio or a dish of gelato?

You should also embrace all the city has to offer by savoring some traditional dishes. Italian cuisine, after all, is a patchwork of regional specialties and local ingredients. While in Tuscany you can expect to find wild boar and Chianina beef, when in Rome look for veal saltimbocca or a spicy bucatini all’Amatriciana. And if you happen to be there in the early summer, don’t ever pass up the chance to order a plate of fiori di zucca—zucchini blossoms stuffed with ricotta cheese, battered and deep-fried.

One final tip, based on personal experience… If ever you long for the simplicity of cacio e pepe, the Italian answer to macaroni and cheese, be very careful how you say it. The letter “C” can be tricky for foreigners. Quite by accident, I once ordered a very private part of the male anatomy instead. It was an innocent slip of the tongue that sent my waiter into peels of laughter!

TIPS:  It may go without saying, but avoid restaurants that post generic photographs of generic food, or those that offer a special menu turistico in English. To gain confidence with Italian vocabulary, consider buying a copy of Eating & Drinking in Italy, by Andy Herbach. He offers basic advice on restaurant etiquette, as well as an indispensable menu translator. In addition to paperback copies, it’s also available for Kindle and iBook readers.

WARNING:  Because of a recent city ordinance, eating and drinking is now banned in areas of “particular historic, artistic, architectonic and cultural value” in Rome, which very nearly everywhere. Local police can now impose fines on tourists who violate the rules by snacking on a sandwich near the Colosseum or the Spanish Steps.

WEBSITES:  Not sure what to tip? Don’t know the difference between a primi piatti and a secondi piatti? Try this handy primer from Fodor’s. For all you need to know about gelato, see: Your Ultimate Guide to Gelato in Rome. And for tips on how to navigate the confusing world of Italian coffee, check out: How to Drink Coffee… Like an Italian.

#4

Sculptures, frescoes, mosaics and more!

As if having the ruins of ancient Rome beneath your feet were not enough, the city’s museums offer a fascinating mix of the elegant, the sublime, and the macabre.

Visit the Borghese Gallery to admire Bernini’s exquisite sculpture of “Apollo and Daphne.” Trek to the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme to see stunning frescoes and mosaics, including a lush painted garden from the Villa of Livia at the National Museum of Rome. Commune with the spirits of two of England’s greatest romantic poets at the Keats-Shelley House near the Spanish Steps. Or, plunge underground to see the skeletons of thousands of Capuchin monks woven into elaborate and ghoulish designs, including a grim reaper holding scales and a scythe made of human vertebrae. The opportunities are endless, bound only by the days in your itinerary and the strength left in your legs.

Here are my personal favorites, in descending order. For hours, locations, and the cost of admission, please refer to each museum’s website, linked below.

TIP:  If you plan to visit several museums in Rome, consider purchasing a Roma Pass, which costs €34 and provides free admission to the first two museums and reduced admission to each additional museum visited within a three-day period. It also provides unlimited use of the city’s public transportation network.

#3

Gaze upon the face of God in Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel

Getting to the Sistine Chapel is enough to test the patience of a saint.

First, there are the notoriously long lines get in, made worse by the heat of the summer sun. Then, there is the crushing weight of people inside—more than 6 million souls visit each year. 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 chapel itself by bypassing some inestimable treasures along the way, but mostly it’s like being on a theme park ride from which there is no escape once the rollercoaster has left the platform.

Buckle in and stay for the day.

Take your time and walk in awe through the 16th century Gallery of Maps that render the cities and towns of Italy in exquisite detail. You will see the Raphael Rooms, including his masterpiece, The School of Athens, paintings by Caravaggio and Leonardo da Vinci, and even an entire room devoted to sculptures of animals.

By the time you reach the Sistine Chapel, you will be acclimated to the unnatural closeness of the strangers and ready to gaze solely upon Michelangelo’s narrative: Noah and the flood, the temptation of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and (of course) God’s creation of Adam in the touch of two outstretched hands. Outside this place, in the pages of books, on coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets and computer mouse pads, the image is so familiar that it’s lost the power to impress. Here, though, you will feel the room pulse with energy and human emotion, and with history, too, for it is here the College of Cardinals meets to elect a new pope.

If time allows, follow the signs and continue on into St. Peter’s Basilica, and if strength remains after a thorough exploration, consider climbing to the top of the dome. Even with an elevator that rises part way, it’s a challenging climb to be sure. As the dome slants in, so too does the head room available on the stairs. It’s a tight and awkward squeeze, but the view is unparalleled. Look down upon St. Peter’s Square and then trace Via della Conciliazione all the way to Castel Sant’Angelo, across the bridge with its sentry of angels, all the way east to the Vittorio Emanuele II monument at Piazza Venezia, which towers over the city like an oversized wedding cake.

Rome is glorious and so, too, is Vatican City.

LOCATION:  St. Peter’s Basilica is located in Piazza San Pietro. To reach the Vatican Museums, turn right and walk out along the walls to Viale Vaticano. For more detailed directions, click here.

HOURS:  The Vatican Museums are open Monday to Saturday, 10:00 AM-6:00 PM. On Sundays, the museum closes at 2:00 PM, except for the last Sunday of every month, when there is also free entrance from 9:00 AM to 12.30 PM. Obviously, expect the lines to be even longer on that day.

COST:  Entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica is free; admission to the Vatican Museums costs €16 for adults.

IMPORTANT:  Modest dress is required. According to the Vatican website: “Access to Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, Vatican Gardens and Saint Peter’s Basilica is permitted only to visitors dressed appropriately (no sleeveless blouses, no miniskirts, no shorts, no hats allowed).”

TIPS:  You can now reserve tickets for the Vatican Museums online. Do it! Or, be prepared to face the consequences—a line of epic proportions that, at times, stretches halfway around the walls of Vatican City. If money is no object, you should know that VIP tours that allow private access off-hours are available.

MORE TIPS:  To extend your visit to Vatican City, consider booking a Scavi tour which takes visitors deep into the necropolis to the tomb of St. Peter (€16). Or, above ground, you can request a ticket to a Papal Audience held most Wednesdays (free).

STILL MORE:  There are more than 900 churches in Rome. If you have the time and the inclination, continue on with these:

#2

Viva l’amore and toss a coin into the Trevi Fountain

If you are forced to wade through a horde of tourists to get anywhere near the Trevi Fountain in Rome—and you will be—you might want to blame Hollywood for making such enchanting movies as La Dolce Vita, Roman Holiday, and Three Coins in the Fountain.

The fountain is impressive in its own right. Completed in 1762 at the terminus of an ancient Roman aqueduct, the pool of water is ornamented by a massive wall of travertine and Carrara marble statues representing an aquatic theme. To be honest, though, most people who congregate here have little interest in art and architecture. Most have come with loose change in their pockets and a very specific task in mind.

According to Fodor’s: “Everyone knows the famous legend that if you throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain you will ensure a return trip to the Eternal City. But not everyone knows how to do it the right way: You must toss a coin with your right hand over your left shoulder, with your back to the fountain. One coin means you’ll return to Rome; two, you’ll return and fall in love; three, you’ll return, find love, and marry.”

I’m a single lady, so the last time I was in Rome I threw an entire handful of coins of every size and denomination, just for good measure!

LOCATION:  Follow the crowds to Piazza di Trevi, off Via Del Tritone, near Piazza Barberini.

COST:  Free, aside from the coins you throw, which are collected regularly and used by the city to fund local charities.

TIPS:  If you feel inspired to reenact another scene from a famous Hollywood movie, you should visit the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, near the Circus Maximus, to snap a quick picture of “La Bocca della Verità,” or Mouth of Truth. It’s a carved stone face that was featured in the 1953 movie Roman Holiday. Legend has it that it bites off the hands of liars, so please be careful!  ;-)

Still can’t get enough? Try this walking tour of the locations used in Roman Holiday. Or, even better, explore the city on a scooter of your own, just like Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. Vintage vespa tours are available from Bici & Baci.

WEBSITE:  Trevi Fountain

#1

When in Rome, do as the Romans do… and join the evening passeggiata

The sweet life. That’s what la dolce vita means, and being in Rome with the pulse of human existence all around, it’s easy to understand the meaning, especially at the end of the day when the noise of traffic fades away and the city falls into a romantic reverie. Families flood the streets and take a gentle stroll about in an Italian tradition known as the evening passeggiata.

Join the crowds and enjoy the show. As someone once told me on my very first trip the Eternal City: “Rome by night, she is magic.”

She is, indeed.

SUGGESTED ITINERARY:  Here is an interactive map of the route I suggest, starting at the Colosseum and ending by the Spanish Steps. Be warned: the total distance of this walk is roughly 3 miles, but will take you by some of the city’s prettiest squares and monuments, including Campo de’ Fiori, Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, and the Trevi Fountain.

Click on the link below that reads “View Larger Map” to see detailed walking directions from site to site.


A Photo Gallery of Rome

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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, June 20, 2013

When I wake up this morning and open the green shutters on my window overlooking Via dei Polacchi, I’m conscious of the fact that it’s my last day in Rome. With all of the delays and distractions that brought me to Italy nearly a week later than planned, my internal clock is off and I’m not ready to leave just yet.

After breakfast, I ramble around Campo de’ Fiori. The name means “field of flowers” and when the market is here, it really is. Clustered around the brooding statue of Giordano Bruno, a Dominican monk who was burned at the stake here in 1600, there are scores of umbrellas shading vendors from the sun. There are fruit and vegetable stands and dried pastas for sale, as well as bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. And of course, there are flowers—big bunches of roses and chrysanthemums and daisies that burst with the vibrant colors of summer.

From here, I continue on to Piazza Navona, where there’s a jazz quartet playing “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” My levitating friends are back with their bright orange turbans and prayer beads, and there’s a street performer dressed like a headless man in a suit jacket and purple tie, waving to tourists as they stroll by, craning their heads in amusement.

I’m going to miss these walks. More than ever before this year, I’ve put schedules and itineraries aside. It was by necessity at first, but then—ever so gradually—by choice. It’s been nice to wake in the morning with little to do but wander as far as my feet will take me, and to embrace whatever the day, or the mood, or the moment, invites.

Originally, I had hoped to see a Brueghel exhibit titled “The Fascinating World of Flemish Art” at the Chiostro del Bramante, but it was set to close on June 2. I had scratched it from my list when the trip got postponed, so I’m surprised to see a poster this morning that’s been altered with a yellow banner reading PROROGATA, extended. Excited, I glance at my map and see that it’s just around the corner, to the west of Piazza Navona.

The Chiostro del Bramante is impressive in its own right, with graceful marble columns and porticos and arches, and the exhibition has been touted as the largest “devoted to the famous artistic dynasty ever to be held in Rome.” I buy a €12 ticket at the door and rove happily through the galleries, which include works by several members of the Brueghel family, including Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s “The Bird Trap” (1605), a sober winter scene with skaters gliding on a frozen river, and “Wedding Dance in the Open Air,” which overflows with carousing, ruddy-nosed peasants. There is also a series of intricate still lifes of butterflies, insects, and shells by Jan van Kessel, another descendent in a complex and talented family tree.

It’s one o’clock by the time I work my way back towards Piazza Venezia. Remembering the inspired view of the Roman Forum from the restaurant at the Capitoline Museum, I decide to go there for lunch, and wind up staying for much of the afternoon, exploring rooms I had somehow missed on my first visit back in 2008, including the Pinocoteca, where Caravaggio’s “The Fortune Teller” hangs, and the entirety of the Palazzo Nuovo and the Tabularium.

The sculptures I see are extraordinary. There is a naturalistic statue of a “Dying Galatian” that throbs with pain and human emotion, and another of Cupid and Psyche locked in a tender embrace. Then there are the rows of heads in the Sala degli Imperatori, or Hall of the Emperors, including the famous Fonseca Bust, with her mound of intricately carved curls piled high upon her head. There is such artistic wealth here that it’s hard to know where to look, or when to stop.

Outside on the Piazza del Campidoglio, it’s another blistering late afternoon, without a cloud in the sky to screen the sun. There are two people unloading cases of bottled water, though, and they’re handing them out for free. Whether the uniform they wear is from the city of Rome or from a corporate sponsor, I don’t know, but I’m exceedingly grateful for the refreshment.

I relax for a while in my air conditioned room at the Hotel Hosianum Palace, where my bags are already packed and stowed in the corner. Earlier in the day, I had liked the quiet streets near the Chiostro del Bramante, so later I head back to Piazza Navona and veer off onto Via di Tor Millina, to a little osteria and wine bar called Cybo for dinner. Loving as ever the languorous sound of Italian, I order the Brasato di vitella con carote glassate e purea di patate, or braised veal with glazed carrots and mashed potatoes, and while I wait for the entrée to arrive, I feel a cool vapor on my skin. I’ve seen fans on the patios of some restaurants in Rome, but here they have a complex system of hoses that work much like a mister in the vegetable aisle of a supermarket, and it feels absolutely wonderful! The veal is good, too, but it’s the gift of outdoor air conditioning on a hot summer’s night that I’ll remember best.

I walk back through the Jewish Ghetto one last time, following Via Giulia and a maze of smaller streets until I reach the Teatro Marcello, where there’s a choir singing in front of the ruins tonight. I stop to listen, and then continue on, back up the long stairs that lead to the Capitoline Hill, the lone statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback, and the piazza designed by Michelangelo. I’ve come to watch darkness fall over the Roman Forum, and when it does it feels like a soft shroud.

It will lift in the morning, and the Gladiators will be back posing for pictures with tourists holding water bottles and paper parasols to shield their faces from the sun, but I won’t be here when it does.

It’s time to move on, and I’m excited by what comes next.

When I first came to Italy in 2008, the impulse was to pose in front of the Coliseum and the Ponte Vecchio and Piazza San Marco, and say I WAS HERE. What does it mean to have returned time and again, through sheer will and force of habit, to the same cities, the same hotels, and many of the same museums and streets? I’ve been thinking a lot about that this time around.

Nelson Mandela once said “There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” Perhaps he’s right, but nothing about a place truly remains unchanged, even in Italy where it often seems as though inertia reigns. There is always more to discover, and new faces to meet.

In standing here, looking out across the vast remnants of Roman history, it occurs to me that time is more like layers of debris. Some memories we bury, but there are those we excavate purely for the joy of seeing them again, all the while building new walls and windows at the surface through which to see the world anew.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Our plane touches down at Rome’s Fuimicino airport at 8:45 AM—right on time—and by 9:30 I’ve cleared passport control and baggage claim with surprising efficiency. Next, I meet up with a driver from Rome Cabs and embark on a brief and uneventful journey into the city, where I check into a small, single room at the Hotel Hosianum Palace, on a quaint side street near Piazza Venezia, shower and change clothes, and call home. All the while, my mind has been occupied by these mundane tasks, by the small necessities that come with long distance travel, and by a series of familiar associations. It is comforting to remember the airport terminal and the location of the ATM machine, and I grin when see the hotel lobby again, looking much as it did when I left two years ago.

I have been in a transitional state—somewhere between coming and going—but now, as I make my way out onto the street and down Via delle Botteghe Oscure, the stress of logistics begins to loosen, and for the first time I start to absorb my surroundings. It’s a Tuesday in late Spring, and I’m standing under a brilliant blue sky in the centro storico of Rome. As I walk in search of a cappuccino, my ears catch the strains of two musicians who are playing for loose change under a shrine to the Virgin Mary. Enticing aromas are wafting out from small cafés opening for lunch. For a moment I lean against the metal railing that surrounds Largo di Argentina and peer down to see a half dozen stray cats, each stretched lazily upon ancient steps and foundation stones, warmed by the midday sun.

It is here that the sights and sounds and smells of Rome remind me of something I read about the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. In a letter to a friend in April 1818, after an arduous trek across the Alps, he said: “No sooner had we arrived in Italy than the loveliness of the earth and the serenity of the sky made the greatest difference in my sensations. I depend on these things for life; for in the smoke of cities, and the tumult of human kind and the chilling fogs and rains in our own country I can hardly be said to live.”

For a fleeting moment, I think of Vermont and its long, grey winters, but the comparison quickly disappears. For the next 17 days, my life will be here and the very thought of it is intoxicating.

I zig zag past Piazza Colonna and its massive column of Marcus Aurelius to Via dei Condotti, where I settle comfortably into a table at Antico Caffè Greco, one of the oldest coffee houses in all of Italy. The rooms are small and charming, with plush velvet benches and walls lined to the ceiling with works of art in old, mismatched frames. Keats and Byron and Shelley—that trio of English romantic poets—were all patrons here, and it is, perhaps, for that reason, that I feel very much at home.

I wander next up to the Spanish Steps, which look grand and inviting to me, and apparently, to hoards of other tourists as well, because they are congregating here en masse. When I last visited Rome in 2008, the obelisk at the top was covered in scaffolding, like a tall metal skyscraper, blocking the view of the church of Santissima Trinità dei Monti. Today, all is well and the view is glorious. Crowded, but glorious.

At the base of the Spanish Steps is a small museum dedicated to Keats and Shelley, and for a temporary escape from the noise outside, I duck in to browse its rooms full of books, manuscripts, and artifacts, and to see the place where Keats died of consumption in 1821 at the age of 25.

I make a brief detour to the Trevi Fountain and to San Crispiano for a dish of pear and grapefruit gelato, before heading up the Quirinale hill, the highest of Rome’s seven hills. So far I’ve been merely stretching my legs and my jet lagged body for the main event of the day—a major Caravaggio exhibit at the Scuderie del Quirinale, a renovated space across from the presidential palace that was once used by the Vatican as a stable for the pope’s horses.

The year 2010 marks the 400th anniversary of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s death at the age of 39. To mark the occasion, the curators in Rome have gone to great lengths to borrow the artist’s finest works from museums around the world: “The Supper at Emmaus” from the National Gallery in London, “The Cardsharps” from Fort Worth, Texas, an amorous cupid from Berlin, and “The Taking of Christ” from Dublin, among others. As a result, newspapers have reported outrageously long lines. Ordinary timed tickets have sold out, as I found when I tried to buy one online weeks ago, so I opt for a Caravaggio Card instead. For a slightly higher cost, I gain priority admission, as well as a free pass for a sightseeing bus that travels to various churches around town where other Caravaggio paintings are on display.

The rooms inside are dimly lit, but noisy with the chatter of local school groups, who sit in crowds on the floor before one painting, then the next, listening in half attention to the commentary of their teachers. For a few Euros, I rent an English audio guide for the exhibit, but soon find myself falling into the same distracted state. The descriptions are dense and academic, as if drawn from an art history lecture, which would normally appeal to me, but here it feels entirely at odds with the drama and raw emotion captured on canvas. Halfway through the chronology, I abandon the headset entirely with no regrets.

Before coming, I read Jonathan Harr’s book, The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece, so I know something already about the artist’s violent life and the allure of his work. It has made me particularly keen to see “The Taking of Christ,” a painting long thought lost, but finally rediscovered on the wall of a Jesuit dining room in Ireland in the early 1990s. From the exquisite lighting, to the realism of the soldiers’ armor, to Caravaggio’s self-portrait holding a lantern at far right, it does not disappoint.

With my energy flagging, I leave the museum and wind my way back to the hotel for a welcome rest, and when I head out again later for dinner, the adrenaline of Rome is once again pulsing in my veins. I revisit Piazza Mattei—one of my favorite little squares—and find the sound of water in the tortoise fountain mingling with the lively tune of a nearby accordion. I continue on to Campo de’ Fiori and then Piazza Navona, where this time Bernini’s “Fountain of the Four Rivers” is blessedly free of its scaffold prison.

By the time I reach Piazza Campo Marzio, the sun has nearly set and my legs have given out at last. I crumble into an outdoor table and chair at Ristorante Boccondivino and dine well on a caprese salad and Veal Saltimbocca. Afterwards, craving sleep but not wanting the night to end, I walk to Hadrian’s Temple in Piazza di Pietra, up to the Spanish Steps, and back past the Pantheon to my hotel.

It’s well past eleven when I crawl into bed. Exhaustion will come, and soon. But as someone once told me: “Rome by night is magic.” Who wouldn’t want to prolong that?

Tuesday, June 2, 2010

“Madame, it is too cold.”

This is what the man at the front desk tells me. Standing there comfortably in a short sleeve shirt, I beg to disagree, grumpy from lack of sleep, but he is unmoved by my protestations.

I’ve made a point of returning to the Hotel Hosianum Palace in Rome, not only because of its location, but because it has a lovely rooftop terrace on which a buffet breakfast is served. This morning, however, a sign posted in the elevator has directed me to a room in the basement that is utterly devoid of natural light. I find this puzzling. When I awoke in my little room and opened the window I was greeted by a warm breeze and a bright, blue sky. And yet here I am, eating my bacon and eggs sequestered underground.

Inasmuch as I love Italy and her people, it is very clear that we each have a different notion of what constitutes inclement weather, and I have been overruled.

I don’t linger over breakfast, and it is not just because of the basement. Today is Festa della Repubblica, or Republic Day, Italy’s equivalent of the 4th of July, and a parade is about to begin just around the corner in Piazza Venezia. By the time I arrive it’s just after 9, and every man, woman, and child in the city of Rome has beat me to it. The crowd is thick and heavy, so I decide to watch and wait from Piazza di San Marco, in a copse of trees just opposite the massive white marble wedding cake known as the Vittorio Emanuele II monument.

When I stand on tip toes I can see precise lines of military men in plumed hats ascending the steps. I lift my camera and through the zoom lens catch a glimpse of Silvio Berlusconi and Giorgio Napolitano laying a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier. An Italian flag furls in the breeze high overhead. When I visited Rome in 2008, I had to catch a train to Florence on the morning of June 2nd, so the festivities were nothing more than an obstacle on the way to Termini Station. This time around, I am determined to experience it all.

There is a momentary lull that follows. I try to navigate up and around the barricades to Via dei Fori Imperiali, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Colosseum, but the weight of the crowd is making me uncomfortable, as are the lit cigarettes that people feel compelled to hold low at their sides despite close quarters.

I retreat back to Piazza di San Marco and remain there for the duration of the parade. As regiments and brigades stream past in vivid hues, I find myself among some equally colorful people. At 5’5” tall I’m struggling to see past the heads in front of me, yet to my left is a woman who is far shorter. While I’m straining forward on the balls of my feet, she jumping—literally jumping—up and down, talking incessantly all the while on her cell phone. The phone rings. “Pronto,” she says. Again, it rings. Again, “Pronto.” Over and over again.

Directly in front of me is a young couple who are doing three things that annoy me greatly. First, the man is holding an umbrella above his girlfriend’s head as if it were a parasol and she was a Southern belle with a delicate complexion in need of protection from the midday sun. Second, even though this Romeo has the manner of an Ashley Wilkes, he has the roving hands of Rhett Butler, which is, shall we say, distracting. And finally, Scarlett has the unforgiving habit of thrusting her camera out at arm’s length in every direction, blocking and very nearly whacking everyone around her, as if the parasol wasn’t bad enough. When her storage card gives out midway through, I smile in silent revenge. That is, until her free hand allows her to light a cigarette.

And finally, there is the man behind me. He taps me on the shoulder and when I turn he makes a motion with his hands like a musician playing the trombone and says, in broken English, “zoom, zoom.” I have a telephoto lens on my camera and at first I think he is irritated with me for using it. And what about Scarlett O’Hara, I think. Surely she’s blocking your view with her flailing camera arm more than I am in lifting mine up to my eye? But no. He isn’t angry with me. Not at all. He’s trying to tell me something, although neither of us have the language skills to communicate properly. When he taps my shoulder again and points toward the sky, I am just in time to catch a fly over by Italy’s Frecce Tricolori—nine jets in tight formation, releasing streams of red, white, and green smoke behind them. I follow them to the horizon with my camera and in seconds they are gone. Grinning broadly, I turn to my new friend and say “Grazie, grazie, grazie!” He nods and smiles back.

As the crowd disperses, I make my way past the Pantheon to Piazza Navona. I grab a mortadella sandwich from a small shop nearby and eat it in the square. Afterwards, I start to search for the nearest 110 Open bus stop, which is only vaguely suggested on the map I received with my Caravaggio card. The red double-decker busses are easy to spot in traffic, but following them is a chore. When I snag one at last, I climb up to the top deck, lean back, and ride for the duration, past St. Peter’s and the Vatican, and Piazza del Popolo, all the way to Termini Station.

I duck in to the station briefly to get a train ticket for tomorrow’s trip to Arezzo, which will save time in the morning, then I head to a trio of churches to finish out the afternoon: the papal basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore; Santa Maria sopra Minerva, the only Gothic church in Rome; and San Luigi dei Francesi, home to Caravaggio’s paintings depicting the life of St. Matthew. Somewhere I read that there are more 900 churches in Rome. I visited four on my first trip, so that even with another three under my belt, I have at least 893 to go. It’s such a shame, I suppose I’ll just have to come back.

For a celebratory end to the day, I decide to walk through the Jewish Ghetto for dinner at Da Giggetto, next to the ancient ruins of Portico d’Ottavia. I order the house specialty—a Carciofo alla Guidia, or fried artichoke “the Jewish way”—as well as a rice, mozzarella, and tomato ball to start, along with a veal roulade as my secondi piatti. There is a young man from Korea dining solo nearby and he comes over to ask for help with the menu when he sees I have a book of food translations. I chat, too, for a bit with an American family of four and enjoy overhearing snatches of their conversation. Their son and daughter are excited to be here, exploring a new culture in a foreign land, and their enthusiasm for new things is contagious. At the same time, their pleasure in each other’s company leaves me feeling a bit homesick for those I love. After dinner, I walk to the Ponte Garibaldi to call my nephew to wish him a happy 19th birthday, and to gaze one last time at the dome of St. Peter’s.

On the way back to my hotel, my eye is drawn to some stenciled graffiti on the side of a building. Graffiti is hardly a novelty in Rome. It’s everywhere, on walls, subway cars, and trash cans.

But this is reminiscent of Banksy somehow, a cut above the rest, and it captures my attention because it reads “Bella La Vita.”

Life is beautiful.

At home—back in the real world—I collect antiques and in my collection I have a set of letters written by a Harvard grad named Roger Swaim who travelled abroad on a “Grand Tour” of Europe in the mid-19th century. Memorably, in writing to a friend, he called Rome an “awful task” and said that he should appreciate it only after getting away from its “filth & discomforts.”

I am reminded of my gentle disagreement with the hotel desk clerk over this morning’s temperature, and once again I beg to disagree. Time and circumstance change, of course. When Swaim was here in 1870, the citizens of Rome had just voted to become part of a unified Italy—an historical event best remembered on Republic Day, of all days. But as with the weather, things such as “filth” and “discomfort” are largely a matter of perception.

I look again at the graffiti on the wall.

Life is beautiful.

Yes. To me, it is indeed.