First things first…Rome is BIG. Unlike Florence, where all of the main attractions look far away but are practically right next to one another…in Rome what looks not so far away on a map is actually very far away.
Secondly, Rome is HOT. I honestly don’t know if this is an odd heat wave or if this is normal summer weather…but it really doesn’t matter as we are currently in Rome and the sun is beating down on us, baking us like potatoes in an oven. But we can’t change the weather, so we just make do, we take a LOT of water and gelato stops…walk in the shade as much as possible…and bring along a “sweat rag”. Thankfully, Rome is full of ancient water fountains, with FREE, fresh, cold water pouring out ready to fill your empty water bottle. It’s been a Godsend.
My other observation (thus far) is that after two weeks in the north of Italy…Rome is quite different. Partly because it is a huge city, and partly because it’s a different region of Italy. I find that Romans are faster, a little more aggressive (especially the drivers), a bit less patient with tourists…but I say all of these things from a positive stand point…we actually feel at home here…it’s like we are back in New York City! We love fast, aggressive people and New Yorkers are certainly not patient with tourists! So it’s all good.
The first evening that we were in Rome, we booked a twilight introduction tour to the city. In the past week and half, we’ve taken several other “Walks of Italy” tours and they have been really good (especially the day trip to Tuscany), so we decided to take this tour. It was actually very informative…we were shown several of the most famous piazzas…got a glimpse at the Trevi Fountain (which is currently hidden behind scaffolding) and our guide gave us a lot of insider information to Rome (how to tip in restaurants, how to get a taxi, how to order a coffee).
We met for our tour on the “Spanish Steps”…but found out that the Romans do not call them the “Spanish Steps” nor do they have any thing to with Spain other than the fact that the Spanish Embassy is near the bottom of the stairs. In fact, it was the French that funded the construction of the stairs in around 1720. And when we were there, the steps were empty…mainly because they were hot to the touch…impossible to sit on. And as a double whamy, the beautiful church at the top of the stairs was encased in scaffolding. So the iconic image of the steps were kind of ruined for me (at least they were from a photography stand point), and thus no photo for my blog. But the surrounding area was still very pretty.
On the tour, we were shown typical examples of Baroque architecture, which dominates much of the ecclesiastical architecture of Rome and we made several stops to see ancient (Roman) columns that have survived time and/or been resurrected at some point in history….and then we made our way to the Pantheon.
Seeing the Pantheon in person will forever be on my all time favorite places to have visited. As an architect…as a lover of history and antiquities…and as a graduate of the University of Virginia whose Rotunda design owes a great deal to this structure…it was awesome to see and to go into it. It’s like the perfect piece of architecture….a Roman temple (based on a Greek Temple form) with a magnificent, ingenious dome sitting on top. Beautiful (but hard to photograph from the inside).
After leaving the Pantheon, we were off to the Piazza Novana…built on the site of a former Roman stadium and housing the famous Fountain of the Four Rivers.
It was a nice little introductory tour, and helped us to get our feet wet in Rome. In fact, we took the Metro to the tour, so we were forced to use the Metro for the first time (easy to use) and we took a bus home…so we figured out the bus system. We also learned that no one seems to pay to ride the bus. Three doors open when the bus pulls up, and everyone jams themselves through all 3 doors…and no one pays. I am not endorsing this, but it’s a fact. We had our 72 hour Metro card…so technically we paid to ride the bus! I’ve also read that they sporadically check to see if you have a pass, and if you do not, you are issued a steep fine.
We made our way back to our Prati neighborhood, and at the recommendation of our apartment owner, we went to Il Ragno D’oro, an old-school restaurant full of locals (always a good sign, I say). We all three got traditional Roman pasta dishes. I ordered spaghetti alla carbonara, Josette got the spaghetti with pecorino and pepper and Lena had traditional ravioli in a tomato sauce, we also had an appetizer plate of meats and breads…a salad between courses and Josette and I shared a beef straccetti (thin slices of grilled beef). They are all very simple dishes, but each ingredient is perfect and fresh, especially the pasta which is served al dente. All of the dishes were wonderful, but Josette’s dish was perfect.
The next morning (Thursday) we got up and had a simple breakfast in our apartment and then headed out. We are only a short walk to the Vatican, so when we left our building, we were bombarded by swarms of tourists, nuns, tour guides, tour urchins selling tickets…all around our neighborhood (there was none of this when we arrived at the apartment the previous afternoon). But we avoided all of the commotion and went in the opposite direction to the Castel Sant’Angelo.
The Castel Sant’Angelo (Castle of the Holy Angel) was actually built as the Mausoleum for Roman Emperor Hadrian and his family. In later years, the building was used by Popes as a fortress and castle. Built around 135 A.D….originally the mausoleum was a decorated cylinder…with trees and statues. Hadrian’s ashes were put there in 138 A.D. with his wife’s and son’s ashes as well.
The ashes of subsequent emperors were placed in the mausoleum, as well…deep inside the structure in the treasury room. In around 400 A.D. the building was turned into a fortress and later attacked by Goths and other barbarians…the ashes of the former Emperors being scattered to the wind. And in the 14th century, the Popes turned the building into a castle and Pope Nicolas III built an underground tunnel connecting the Castle to St. Peter’s. The castle became a refuge and safe spot for subsequent Popes, and elaborate rooms were built should the Pope have to stay there for any long period of time. Legend has it that the Archangel Michael appeared atop the mausoleum in around 590 A.D. to mark the end of a devastating plague.
We left the Castle and had a plan to go to the Trastevere district…one of the last medieval parts of Rome with narrow, charming, twisting lanes…cute piazzas and a little less off the tourist path. On the way over, we all started sweltering. Panting. Sweating. We had to stop in a cafe and get water and cold coffee and re-hydrate…and we were lucky enough to catch an air-conditioned bus. As soon as we got off, we cooled down with a grattachecca…which is a essentially Rome’s version of a shaved ice that is typically sold in a kiosk. The woman who worked this kiosk spoke no English, but she sort of decided what type of grattachecca we should each have. And she decorated each one so nicely. It was a nice, cold, treat.
And then we strolled around the lovely little lanes of the Travestere until we came to the church of Basilica di Santa Maria, one of the oldest churches in Rome. Parts of the floor plan date to 340 A.D. and the basic building to the 1100’s. The columns that line the nave came from the Baths of Caracalla.
We found a little restaurant nearby with a very good prosciutto and melon appetizer and delicious coal-oven pizza. The owner was lively and personable and spoke not a word of English…but by week 2, we are pretty good and getting by on what little Italian we know.
But here is where I have to remind you that it is VERY VERY VERY hot in Rome. By this time, we have sweated through our clothes, the sun is relentlessly baking us…not a cloud to be found…and it’s broiler-like hot. We are having a great time seeing the sights, but getting from one to the other is a chore. A hot, sweaty chore.
Before coming to Rome, we had seen a few travel shows that featured Santa Cecilia in Trastavere, a 5th century church on a tiny little side alley (the facade is from the 1750’s). Apparently, the church was built on the site of Saint Cecilia’s house. The church is full of beautiful artwork dating from the 1400’s thru the 1700’s. Most notably is the sculpture of St. Cecelia by Stefano Maderno from 1600. The story goes that: St. Cecila had converted about 400 people to Christianity…and the Romans found out and arrested her. It was decided that she should die by suffocation in the baths. Saint Cecilia was locked into the bathhouse and the fires vigorously stoked. She remained there for a day and a night but was still alive when the soldiers opened the doors. She was then ordered beheaded, but the executioner, after striking three times without severing St Cecilia’s head, ran away, leaving her badly wounded. St. Cecilia hung onto life for three days after the mortal blows, preaching all the while. She made many more conversions and people came to soak up her flowing blood with sponges and cloths. The last part of the story is that St. Cecilia’s body was found and exhumed in the the 16th century and when they opened the coffin, she was in perfect condition…the axe cuts to her neck still fresh. Sort of a bummer of a story…but so it was…and this church was dedicated to her…and it is a lovely, feminine feeling church.
We also visited the crypts under the church which were fascinating. I am not certain of exactly what we saw as all of the signs were in Italian, but essentially, they have excavated the remains of the home(s) of very early Christians in Rome…maybe even Cecilia’s house. To walk where some of the first Christians would have secretly worshiped was very fascinating.
We then decided that we were kinda sorta within walking distance of the Colosseum and the Forum…and we were very anxious to see it, even though we have a tour booked for Saturday morning. It turned out to be a very long walk …much longer than we anticipated (see the beginning of this post when I said maps are deceiving in Rome). But the payoff was worth it. The Colosseum is majestic…bigger than I had expected…beautiful…everything you would want it to be. We then walked up to the Forum and took a look. It’s still amazing to see something so old.
And the last stop of the day was the Piazza del Campidoglio…designed and laid out by Michelangelo in the 16th century.
And at the end of a VERY long and hot day, we had dinner reservations at 8:30 for more delicious Roman food. It was a loooooong dinner…it’s very relaxing but at a snail’s pace for the average American. You can’t call it bad or slow service…it’s just not the way we do things back in NYC. The pasta was divine, as it has been on the entire trip.
Tomorrow is a visit to St. Peter’s and the Vatican to see the Sistine Chapel.