07 November 2010

Weekend in Rome

I went to Rome last weekend. After the trip, I started laying out my plan for my extensive blog post, outlining each and every thing that we did and saw and how I felt about it. But, after writing for some time and seemingly getting nowhere, I realized that I was wasting my time. Its not about the individual happenings and the minutia of it all. Its about the experience as a whole, the physical, mental and emotional transformation that I go through every time that I do something new here.

While in Rome, I saw all of the major stuff. My friend and I (and two other Americans whom we met our second day there) sauntered all over the Eternal City seeing the Vatican, the Colosseum, the Forum, Palatine Hill, Trevi Fountain, and dozens of other monuments and spectacles, some famous and some not so famous. We ate incredible food, met some really nice people and experienced a brand new culture for the very first time. My weekend in Rome was amazing and writing about it is difficult, but I think that it is important for me to try. So, avoiding a minute by minute itinerary recap of the entire 4 days, I'm just going to highlight, well, the highlights, and while the "highlights" are still quite extensive, believe it or not, what you are about to read is, indeed, the abridged version of the trip. I could write for days about some of the individual things that I saw and experienced during my weekend in Rome, and someday, maybe I will. But, for now, you get the highlights, and the rest will remain for me to enjoy...

It is important to know that I am a history buff, and that going to Rome was like going to small piece of heaven for me. Now, when I say "history buff," I am not implying that I am all knowing or even incredibly knowledgeable about world history. I think that I know a fair amount, possibly more than the average person, but to me, "buff" is more in reference to my affinity for the subject. I love to think about how things used to be and how that they have come to be as they are in the present moment. Standing in front of something that is hundreds or thousands of years old gives me a sense of humility and insignificance that fascinates me. To stand where others have stood before, others about whom I have read and watched since I can remember, is to come as close to traveling through time as I will ever come. In Rome, I felt this with an almost incessant desire to remain forever in that particular moment, although "that particular moment" references a string of 4 days of constant movement and stimulation during which I would be hard pressed to find a "particular moment" in which I would rather be more than any other.

St. Peter's Basilica at night
The monuments and historical pieces were each impressive and breathtaking in their own right, of course some more so than others. Our first stop was the Vatican City, through which we took a guided tour with a man from Amsterdam. The Vatican is full of some of the most beautiful and respected pieces of art that this world has ever known. Walking through the halls of its in-house museum is like walking through a history book in which Michelangelo and Raphael are the principal illustrators. Sculptures of emperors, dignitaries and gods line the walls. Massive tapestries interwoven with silk and gold hang along corridors. One hallway alone houses over 1,000 hand carved statues, most of which are busts or full body depictions of important leaders and Roman gods. At the end of the museum, I was able to see the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo's famed masterpiece, which he was forced to paint under intense pressure by Pope Julius II. Michelangelo's ceiling fresco, accompanied by The Last Judgement, his front wall mural painted 24 years after the ceiling, makes for quite a spectacular viewing experience. Outside of the chapel, we passed through the tombs of the popes and St. Peter's Basilica, both incredibly powerful sites full of masterful decor and inexplicable energy. Once outside of the Basilica, we stood in the famous St. Peter's Square, surrounded by other awestruck tourists and Italian police personnel. From the Square, we wandered to the banks of the Tiber River while having a cup of gelato and allowing to marinate in our minds the significance of our just finished tour of one of the most unique sites on earth.

The Colosseum, the Forum and Palatine Hill were also quite interesting. These three sites are all basically in the same spot in the city and are much more "Roman" than the Vatican in that they represent some of the most important aspects of ancient Roman society apart from the catholic sector. The Colosseum was home to arguably the most gruesome series of public entertainment events that the world has ever witnessed. Built by more than 12,000 Jewish slaves between 70 and 80 AD, the venue could hold more than 50,000 spectators and was often packed to the brink of overflowing. Events here consisted of imprisoned gladiators being forced to fight animals and/or other gladiators. Crowds would go crazy as unwilling participants sent to die in front of thousands were forced to fight lions, tigers, rhinoceroses and other monstrous beasts. Across the street, atop Palatine Hill and at the Roman Forum, is where the business of ancient Rome took place. This plot of land was home to most if not all of the major players in the city. Government operated from this hill and many of the major financial institutions set up shop here. Today, Palatine and the Forum are a series of ancient ruins, most of which are generally unrecognizable. Pieces of broken columns and smashed buildings are strewn about in seemingly unorganized fashion. There are some mock up drawings of what the area looked like in its prime, but those are only as accurate as one is willing to believe. A few major structures still stand tall, towering over the not so well preserved collection of artifacts that constitutes most of the area. These conjoined sites of ruins are the most authentically ancient Roman attraction that the city has to offer, and while they were not the most exciting things to walk through, they are an important part of the story of one of the greatest empires in the history of the world, and I am glad that I was able to experience them.

View from the south end of Piazza Navona
In the center of the city I was able to visit the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Pantheon, and Piazza Navona. The Trevi Fountain is considered to be the most impressive fountain in Rome. Nestled against the side of a building, the fountain is a massive sculptural masterpiece depicting Oceanus being guided in a shell chariot by tritons and horses. Legend claims that if you face away from the fountain while throwing a coin over your shoulder and into the water, you will one day return to Rome. Nearby is the Pantheon, a concrete domed structure that is thought to be the most well preserved building in the ancient city. The dome is made of non-reinforced concrete and is the largest of its kind. At the top is a large hole that allows the elements of nature to enter. When it rains in Rome, it rains in the Pantheon. Inside the dome is a chapel of sorts with several shrines to saints and the tomb of the great Raphael. Down the street from the Pantheon are the Spanish Steps and the Piazza Navona. The Spanish Steps is the largest and widest staircase in Europe, leading into the Piazza di Spagna (Spanish Plaza). In close proximity to the staircase is the house of famed poet John Keats and the house of the Medici, an historically significant Italian family who during the Renaissance owned a major part of the financial entities of the region. The Piazza Navona is a large oval plaza that is home to several restaurants, street vendors, and the building that currently serves as the Brazilian embassy. This centralized area of sites was very entertaining, and besides site seeing here, my friend and I spent a lot of our time in the restaurants, bakeries and gelato places nearby.

The food in Rome was, of course, incredible. Pasta, pizza, gelato (actually spelled gelati in Italy) and wine. Among my daily meals, I had the pleasure of dining at two separate restaurants on the edge of the Jewish Ghetto, a serene and eternally romantic 20 minute walk from the Vatican wall. The pasta was cooked to the perfect consistency, not too soft, but not too hard, covered in a presumably homemade sauce that is unrivaled by anything you or I have ever tasted. The pizza, cooked in a handcrafted brick oven, came to our plate with a thin, crispy crust topped with the freshest, purest, most delectable of ingredients. This was, no doubt, real Italian food. There was no shredded cheese or factory produced tomato sauce. The sausage was not mysteriously in the shape of a marble and the ham had been sliced from the cured leg of a local pig, not cut from a log of bologna in the back. The bread was freshly baked and the tiramisu made by some little old Italian lady who has been using the same recipe for so long that she can't even remember from whence it came. The servers didn't speak english, and the menu was nearly impossible to read. At one of these dinners, we were able to sit outside, in the streets of real authentic Rome. Families, children, old couples and priests walked by as we enjoyed our dinner. The stars danced overhead and the remnants of an area once devastated by religious expulsion but now revitalized with traditional culture surrounded our table. Perhaps it was more than the food that made those dinners taste so good. Perhaps it was the ambiance, the fact that we were in Rome and we knew it. Perhaps it was the quiet serenity of a neighborhood consumed with history and significance that I have only dreamed of. Or, perhaps, it was just the food.

The most amazing part of my trip to Rome took place on the night of the first full day that I was there, and believe it or not, it had nothing to do with Rome itself. My friend and I were sitting at a restaurant just off of a small street that leads to Piazza Navona. After chatting with the waitresses, we sat at a table that was precariously situated half indoors and half out. We ordered a bottle of wine to share and started browsing the menu. As we perused the choices, we discussed and decided that we were willing to spend a bit in order to have a good meal. It was our first real night in Rome, and we were going to enjoy ourselves. Eventually, we both made our selections and then sipped wine and nibbled on bread as we waited. After a few minutes, a couple was seated at the table next to us. This couple, two Americans who seemed to be in their mid fifties, was doing the same as my friend and I, enjoying a dinner in Rome and attempting to appreciate a short stay in such a haven of historical magnitude. While completely consumed by my risotto di mare (seafood risotto) and chatting with my friend about our lives back in the states, I was interrupted by the female half of the American couple. "Are you two Americans?" she asked as she nervously gestured, failing at her attempt to hide the fact that she felt rude to interrupt our conversation.

"Yes, we are," my friend and I replied, "where are you all from?"

After this initial greeting, we four began to chat for what seemed like no less than 30 to 45 minutes. They were from Iowa and were taking a vacation to a few spots around Italy. They had been to Italy before, but they love Rome so much that they decided to come back. We chatted about traveling, life in the states, the brutal winters of Chicago, and what we had seen and done in Rome so far. Inevitably, they asked what we were doing in Rome, and we proceeded to explain to them that we live in Madrid as elementary school English teachers but were visiting Rome for the weekend. They appeared to be very impressed and commented extensively on how great they thought it was that we would travel across the world to do such a thing. We gave them some tips on ways to skip the lines at the sites in Rome and presented to them a sales pitch as to why they should visit Spain, a place they said that they had regrettably never been. After some time, they let us know that they were leaving. They spoke to the waitress, paid their tab, shook our hands, and walked away. Once they were walking away, my friend and I decided to call the waitress over to request our own check so that we could go enjoy the rest of our night, but before we could signal for her, she approached our table voluntarily. "I'm not sure if you know this, but they just paid for your dinner," she said in broken but surprisingly well spoken English.

"What?" we said, not sure if we heard her correctly.

"They paid for your dinner. I don't think that they wanted you to know, but they told us that they wanted to pay for your dinner and then they were going to leave."

My friend and I sat speechless, staring at each other not knowing what to say. The couple was still within our view, and we could have run out to tell them thank you and to try to pay them for our food, but we both knew that wasn't what they wanted. They didn't want us to know. They didn't do it so that we could tell them thanks. Instead of running after them and spoiling their good deed, my friend and I both reacted to the shocking revelation with the exact same idea. "When I'm older, I'm going to do that for someone. I have to." There was no doubt in either of our minds that we were just handed a free dinner and an obligation of reciprocation, an obligation that we both accepted willingly. I am not sure why they paid for our food, and I guess it really doesn't matter. I definitely didn't expect them to do so, and when the waitress told us of what had happened, it was one of the few times in my life that I have been rendered speechless. All we did was chat with a couple at the table next to us while enjoying our Italian cuisine. We could have shrugged them off, answering that "yes" we were Americans and then turning our backs to continue our solitary dinner. But, we didn't. We had a great time chatting with them and sharing stories about a wide range of topics. I guess paying our tab and leaving without giving us a chance to realize what they had done was their way of saying "thanks for the company."

Well, you're welcome.

(click here to see the remainder of my pictures from my weekend in Rome)

No comments:

Post a Comment