Top 10 Things to Do in Rome, Italy

RomeIn 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.

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.

Friday, May 30, 2008

This morning, I wake from a deep sleep to the persistent honk of my alarm clock. My muscles are stiff when I roll out of bed, but when I open the shutters overlooking Via dei Polacchi and crane my neck out the window, I see a promising blue sky, which renews my energy. On a morning such as this, it seems a shame to waste Euros on a taxi ride to Vatican City, and I’ve heard horror stories about the pickpockets on Bus 64. I have a 10:30 AM reservation for an official guided tour of the museums, but even after eating breakfast there is plenty of time to spare, so I decide to walk instead.

I turn left down Via delle Botteghe Oscure, stroll past a few ancient and incongruous pillars on the right, and run smack into a major Roman ruin. It’s Largo di Torre Argentina and it’s fascinating. The sunken square reminds me that the modern city of Rome has been elevated by layers of debris.

As I turn up Corso Vittorio Emanuele, I watch impatient Italians on motor bikes push through the streets as fast as the morning rush hour will allow. Shopkeepers are rolling up their doors. The sight of two little old ladies walking arm and arm makes me smile. Rome is a different city by day, but it’s wonderful just the same.

When eventually I reach St. Peter’s Square, turn right, and wind my away around the Vatican walls in search of the museum entrance, I begin to wonder where the infamous line is, the one people stand in for hours when they don’t have a timed reservation. I want to appear smug and self-satisfied with my computer printout in hand.

When I find the doors I realize that the line is no more than 40 or 50 people long. It barely wraps around the first bend in the wall. Nonconformist that I am, I’m tempted to join the queue and avoid the extra fee for the tour, but I don’t. I look for the line reserved for guided Vatican tours and show the guard my printed confirmation.

Once inside, I still have to go through security and pay for my ticket. But afterwards I am directed to a roped off reception area to wait with other visitors. We’re handed Whisper headsets so that we can hear the guide and a group of us are amused when she holds the microphone to her mouth and asks anyone who can’t hear to come up to the desk for assistance. After all, if you can’t hear her voice through the earphones, how are you supposed to follow her instructions?

In the end, it’s a good tour and lasts about two hours. We see courtyards, tapestries, and domes, even a room devoted exclusively to sculptures of animals. Our guide is knowledgeable and enthusiastic, but it’s easy to lose sight of her once we reach the more crowded rooms. I notice that the other tour guides around me are all holding silly objects in the air for their clients to follow: an umbrella, a paddle that looks like it came from a Sotheby’s auction, a large felt flower. We have nothing.

When we reach the map gallery, I think it’s so incredible, so captivating, that I linger a little too long taking pictures. At first, her voice cuts in and out as the signal fades. Then it disappears altogether. I have no choice but to follow the masses forward down what feels like a one way street. I know I’m getting close when I start to pick up bits of static and snatches of speech. It feels like I’m in a crowded swimming pool playing “Marco Polo.” Once inside the Raphael Rooms, I spot her at last, just as she starts to collect the headsets. She explains that we will visit the last room on our own. It’s time for the grand finale.

As everyone knows, there is a no photography rule in the Sistine Chapel. The reasons for this are muddled since photos are allowed everywhere else in the Vatican Museums. The explanations range from the perfectly understandable to the downright silly. On the understandable side, it is a place of worship and should be respected as such. Granted, a reasonable person might recall the story of Jesus and the money changers and decide that the souvenir shops scattered every ten feet throughout the museum threaten the sanctity of the place about as much as tourists snapping pictures, but I digress.

Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum is a desire to protect the frescoes from the damage caused by a million or more flash bulbs a year, and yet no one seems to be particularly concerned about that in the map gallery or the Raphael Rooms.

Then there is the stuff of urban legend — tales of the Japanese firm that paid to restore Michelangelo’s work in the 80s and 90s and how they cleverly acquired the copyright to the images along the way. As I follow the crowd toward the room, I overhear some tourists grumbling about how it’s all a conspiracy to get people to buy overpriced postcards and guidebooks in the gift shop afterwards.

Whatever the truth in that rumor, the sign over the entrance door is clear. Camera + red X = No pictures. I cannot in good conscience plead innocence to “The Rule” and so I slide the power switch on my Nikon D40 into the off position with a gentle click.

As soon as I enter the chapel, I find myself overwhelmed by two things: the crushing weight of the crowd and the breathtaking beauty of the ceiling. Actually, the first can’t even compare to the second in importance because everyone is looking up anyway. I feel the unnatural closeness of the strangers around me, but I do not see them. My eyes see nothing but Michelangelo’s narrative: Noah and the flood, the temptation of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, 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, I can feel the room pulse with energy.

After the initial sense of awe has subsided in my brain, I take in my surroundings and begin to realize that “The Rule” about photography is unenforced in the most spectacular fashion. I squeeze onto a bench along the wall and observe human nature as it takes its natural course.

There seem to be three main strategies employed. The first is a simple version of grab and run. One guy looks furtively around, snaps a quick picture under his arm, and moves nonchalantly away as if nothing happened. An old woman gets caught by a guard after taking her turn and tries to explain that she doesn’t speak Italian, and therefore didn’t know better. A teenager confidently points and shoots in utter disregard for the consequences. Sneak it, feign ignorance, or do as you darn well please. It’s simple, really.

Put it all together and the whole system works rather like a “Whack a Mole” game. The guards step in to stop one person from taking pictures, and three others use it as cover for taking their own.

The problem is that the penalty doesn’t seem too bad. There is no real disincentive. The guard who approached the old woman did not confiscate her camera, nor did he escort her to the door. He merely wagged his index finger back and forth saying “no, no, no” in the tone of voice you use to chastise a child who has done something that is in equal parts wrong and amusing.

This presents both a moral dilemma and a physical challenge. I feel swept away. Is this what people mean when they talk about the psychology of crowds? I can just see myself saying to the guard: “But you see, sir, everyone else in the room was doing it.” And he says: “What if everyone else in the room jumped off of the dome of St. Peter’s, would you do that, too”? At this particular moment, I think that I might.

I try to distract myself by listening to Rick Steves’ commentary on my iPod, but a sequence of thoughts begins to run through my head… My camera is still slung around my neck, but it’s getting heavy. It would feel good to rest it on my lap for a while as I sit. I wouldn’t want to rest it facing down, of course, because that might scratch the lens. Up would be better. But then it would be easy to bump the power switch with my hand, and if that happened I would be able to press the shutter, too. Accidentally, of course. These things happen. And how would I know, with the digital screen on the back of the camera hidden so completely from view?

Who am I kidding?

I do what needs to be done. As I leave, I look back over my shoulder at the “Last Judgment,” at Michelangelo’s depiction of the tormented, writhing bodies of the damned, and my moral compass kicks in at last. I am going to H-e-l-l. But at least I’ll have lots of company…

Mi dispiace.

After a quick lunch in the museum’s cafeteria, I head back around the walls to St. Peter’s Basilica, stopping only to look for “Pope-eners” in one of the souvenir shops along the way. When I see one, it’s actually a bit of a letdown. It’s a gold and silver bottle opener with Pope John Paul II’s likeness on one side and St. Peter’s on the other. It’s not as kitschy as I had hoped. It’s got a great name, though.

By now, it’s mid-afternoon and the security line at the basilica is short and efficient. I wonder at first if the sleeves on my blouse will be long enough to pass muster with the guards, but in comparing my own sartorial choices with those of my fellow travelers, I start to relax. Shorts, halter tops… don’t these people read the guidebooks? There is a strictly enforced dress code at St. Peter’s.

Yeah, and there’s a ban on photography in the Sistine Chapel.

Perhaps they both work the same way because a guy in front of me just got through with shorts on. His knobby white knees are totally exposed. I can’t decide whether he really doesn’t know about the dress code, or if he’s just playing it cool and hoping no one will notice. Eventually, they do. A guard comes scurrying up from behind, taps him on the shoulder, he shrugs and away they go.

Inside, St. Peter’s basilica is meant to be an impressive site, and it is. It’s dimensions are mammoth, self-consciously so as it turns out, because as I listen to another Rick Steves podcast he points out the Latin inscriptions on the floor that mark where other churches would fall if they were placed inside of St. Peter’s: St. Paul’s in London, the Duomo in Florence, St. Mark’s in Venice. It’s an amusing image, to think of the great cathedrals of the world as a giant set of Russian nesting dolls.

I enjoy seeing art in museums, well lit and perfectly placed at the optimal viewing angle. But it’s so much better to see it in situ, where it belongs, its context intact. Here, there is Michelangelo’s first Pietà and Bernini’s Gloria window made of transparent sheets of alabaster, not to mention a stunning array of mosaics so detailed they appear from the floor to be painted in oil.

I visit the crypt next to see the tomb of Pope John Paul II, then make my way back outside to join the line to the dome. I have a choice to make… Climb the whole thing, or pay two Euros more to take an elevator half way. I can’t get the extra coin out of my wallet fast enough!

Even with the elevator, it’s a challenging climb. 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 from the top is fantastic. My eyes fix on St. Peter’s Square and then trace Via della Conciliazione all the way to Castel Sant’Angelo, across the bridge with the angels all the way east to the Victor Emmanuel monument at Piazza Venezia, which looks like an oversized wedding cake. To the right of that, I spy the Colesseum.

After my descent, I limp into a shop nearby and reward myself on a job well done with a heaping dish of gelato: pistacchio and crema.

By now it’s 5:00 PM, but there is still plenty of time before dinner, and with the gelato holding my hunger at bay, I decide to visit the interior of Castel Sant’Angelo. It’s a long, slow climb up a dark interior ramp, but when I reach the terrace on top I can see the full length of the bridge, a bend in the river Tiber, and to the west, the dome of St. Peter’s. When I rest my hands on the windowsill to lean out, my fingers fall into the deep grooves of graffiti carved into stone. I wonder who BOTTESINIE was and what he thought about as he stood here. How long ago? One hundred years? Two hundred?

By the time I realize I left my beautiful tri-fold, laminated map of Rome somewhere in the castle, I’m already back on the bridge. The logic centers of my brain know that it might be possible to retrace my steps, to find and reclaim my map, but my legs plead for mercy. There is, after all, the long steady incline both up to and back from the terrace to consider. I decide to wing it instead. Tomorrow, I can always pick up one of the free paper maps they offer at hotels, but for now there is the immediate problem of dinner.

Weeks ago, it had seemed like a pleasant task to pick out restaurants from guidebooks and online discussion boards. Someone on Trip Advisor recommended “La Pollarolla” and that worked out well the first night. For this particular evening, I had highlighted a pizzeria called “San Marco.” I had even circled its location on my map with a marker. Now that I’m here, there is no map, no circle, no way of knowing where Via Tacito is.

I wander for a bit around Piazza Adriana and then stroll back over the Ponte Sant’Angelo as I formulate a game plan. It is only my second day in Rome, but already my determination to eat consistently good, authentic Roman fare is giving way to the reality of hunger and exhaustion. I decide to go for something — anything — close by.

Desperation brings me to “Antico Caffé di Marte” on Via Banco di San Spirito. When I see the large poster by the door showing pictures of the various dishes they serve, I know I’m in trouble. It’s a tourist trap with a capital “T.” I figure that as long as I’m here I might as well go all the way and order a Coca Cola Lite… with ice. I remind myself that I’m going to hell for taking that picture in the Sistine Chapel, anyway. How much further can I slide?

Ultimately, the pizza margherita isn’t very good. In fact, it’s dry as a bone, but the insalata caprese is fine, made with nice, fresh ingredients. By the time I finish, it’s approaching nine o’clock and I feel energized again and ready to position myself for some night shots.

An hour later, I’m satisfied that the pictures I’ve taken of Castel Sant’Angelo and St. Peter’s Basilica have turned out well. Both buildings are beautifully floodlit and after the sun set the sky had deepened into a rich cobalt blue. I decide to head back to the hotel, but because of the descending darkness and the fact that I still don’t have a map, I opt for the safety of a taxi instead. Although, as it turns out, safety is a relative thing.

I walk to the taxi stand in front of St. Peter’s. The driver at the front of the line doesn’t speak any English, and Via dei Polacchi is a tiny little street, so it takes some time for us to reach a mutual understanding of my destination. Once we do, the car is off like a dart down Corso Vittorio Emanuele. The guy is like Mario Andretti at the Indy 500. I peer over the front seat and see that we’re going 100 kilometers per hour. I figure that’s about 60 miles per hour. Pretty fast for the center of town. The best part comes when Mario beeps his horn preemptively at all of the intersections, just in case someone is foolhardy enough to try to cross in front of him. When we arrive outside my hotel minutes later, he gestures triumphantly up at the sign and says “Via dei Polacchi!”

Indeed.

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.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

When I wake up this morning, I’m conscious of the fact that it’s my final day in Rome. I’ve planned a side trip out along the Appian Way and getting there requires a ride on the Archeobus, which departs from Termini Station. There is no way I’m walking this time, so I buck up my courage and plunge into the Rome metro system instead. Until now, I haven’t used the transportation portion of my Roma Pass. I’ve heard too many horror stories about scam artists, pickpockets, roving gypsies, and graffiti. The London tube? Perfectly delightful. The metro in Paris? Piece of cake. But Rome? Perhaps it’s all in my head, but it seems unsafe and intimidating.

I walk to the Colosseo stop, validate my pass, and wait for a Line B train to Termini Station. When it arrives I almost laugh aloud. It’s so encrusted with graffiti that the passengers can barely see out the windows. I can honestly say that Rome has exceeded my expectations in so many ways! It’s not just graffiti, but graffiti on steroids, some of it quite interesting and nearly beautiful.

The journey itself is uneventful, over in minutes.

Outside the station in Piazza dei Cinquecento, I exchange my computer confirmation for a boarding pass and begin to wait. When it comes, the Archeobus is a strange lime green creation, like a bus with the roof gently scooped off, open-top but single deck. On board, it’s the usual stuff — a pair of low quality, brightly colored ear phones, monotonous commentary in the language of your choice, and a connection so marred by static that you can only hear every other word anyway. Convenience is what this is all about. I want to see the Catacombs of San Callisto and the official directions are daunting, involving the metro and two bus lines. The Archeobus delivers me directly to the door.

I’m able to catch a tour in English as soon as I arrive, and soon I’m enthralled by the guide, who happens to be a Catholic priest and a control freak. Father Rocco likes to position people just so, and is prone to giving elaborate instructions on who should move where to maximize space and visibility. We are both teachers, he and I, and I like this about him.

As we move from an outdoor pavilion into the tunnels underground, I see that he’s donning a heavy, quilted jacket — a parka, really. This seems to worry others, too. How cold is it in there? As it turns out, not cold at all. At least to me. I think it’s hot outside. It’s cool and refreshing down under, but then again I’m from Vermont, where much of the year I aspire to any temperature above freezing.

In the end, it’s an exceptional tour, the best I’ve been on since verger Ian’s at Westminster Abbey in the summer of ‘06. Father Rocco makes it so. He’s brilliant and I’m disappointed when he cites a study that shows that people only remember 10% of what they learn from guides. I’d like to absorb it all. History and religion is a fascinating mix.

When I leave San Callisto, I pick up the first Archeobus I see along the Appian Way. It’s only after I board that I realize it’s heading in the wrong direction, back to Rome instead of further along the route towards the aqueducts. Que sera, sera. I decide to stay put and use the extra time to see some other sites on my list.

I hop off at Santa Maria in Cosmedin, near the Circus Maximus, and 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 with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. Legend has it that it bites off the hands of liars. Still in willful denial about that picture in the Sistine Chapel, I decide not to press my luck by inserting my own.

From there, my free paper map shows me that I’m not far from Piazza Cavalieri di Malta, where my guidebook says there is a “secret keyhole” in a door that reveals a charming view of St. Peter’s. This is off-the-beaten path stuff and I decide to make it my mission to find it. When I do, I realize with some amusement that it’s darn near the center of the beaten path! There’s a small crowd queuing in front of a worn green door. The line never seems to shorten because everyone presses their camera lens to the keyhole, and everyone frowns at the screen afterwards in disappointment before making their way to the back of the line to try again. I decide to call it good enough on my second attempt. It’s a tough shot that requires manual focus, a steady hand, and a strong zoom. I think I managed two out of the three.

So far, it’s been an interesting and eclectic day, so I decide to continue on the same theme. I sit for a while in a charming park on the Aventine Hill at Viale Nino Manfredi. Then I walk back to Piazza Venezia and on a lark decide to take the elevator to the top of the Victor Emmanuel monument to enjoy the view. I stop for a late lunch of gnocchi pomodoro at “Vecchia Roma,” and head back to the hotel for what has become my traditional afternoon siesta.

By early evening I’m back out on the street again, this time walking across the Ponte Garibaldi. At a souvenir stand just over the Tiber, I spot a row of boxer shorts sporting vertical stripes of red, white, and green to match the Italian flag. In the center, portions (um) of Michelangelo’s “David” have been cleverly inserted. It’s funnier even than the Pope-ener.

I’ve arrived in Trastevere. Several years ago I heard a “soundseeing” tour of this largely residential neighborhood, recorded on a vibrant Sunday morning by a Dutch priest, Father Roderick Vonhögen. From the sound of church bells ringing at Santa Maria in Trastevere to his description of the smell of fresh baked bread, I was transfixed. Now, I am here to see it with my own eyes.

It is… well, underwhelming. The architecture is impressive, but for the first time I am appalled by the amount of graffiti that I see.

The basilica, however, is lovely. It is one of the oldest parish churches in Rome, and some believe it is the first church in the world where Catholic mass was celebrated openly. I stop on the portico to stare at fragments of carved marble embedded into the walls, taken from various tombs in ancient Rome. On the inside, there is another stunning mosaic in the apse, but my favorite is a statue in the rear of the church of St. Anthony of Padua, shown holding the child Jesus. Into his arms and at his feet, parishioners have tucked hundreds of prayers, written on folded scraps of paper. If St. Peter’s is a testament to the wealth and prestige of the Catholic Church, this is proof of its relevance in the everyday lives of the faithful.

For dinner, I head back over the Tiber to a pizzeria called “Gino ai Funari.” The waiter is an elderly man with boundless energy and a personality to match. When, halfway through, I add an insalada mista to my order, he curtseys and winks. When I decline dessert he gives me a wave of his pinky finger, paired with a hearty laugh. The place is slowly filling with Americans. I know this because I can hear them ordering their cans of Coca Cola Lite. I’m beginning to think that Gino is nipping our collective share of the vino.

My final task in Rome is to take the perfect picture of the Colosseum, illuminated at night. I’m later than I’d like and trying to move quickly down the sidewalks that line the Via dei Fori Imperiali is not easy. The grandstands placed there for Monday’s parade have created a huge bottleneck. As I listen to one couple talk, strolling two abreast, hand-in-hand, I come to the realization that while Italians drive fast, they walk very, v-e-r-y slowly. I’d like to ponder that contradiction, but for now I’m chasing the light.

In the end, all is well. I snap away happily until the last trace of blue leaves the sky. I have done all that I had hoped to do in Rome, and enjoyed it immensely. Veni, vidi, vici. I came, I saw, I conquered.

And now it is time to sleep.