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.

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.