When in Rome…
December 28, 2014 | By Mitch & Jewels |
Somehow the end is the beginning is the end. The last city we visited on our year-long honeymoon adventure was Rome… with its abundance of art, history, culture, and food.
We arrived in Roma on October 31st (Oops! We got behind on blogging!) with Amy and Michael (Mitch’s parents) and stayed for nearly a week. Amy and Michael had rented an apartment for the four of us. The apartment wasn’t well-kept by any means, but its location near Piazza Navona made it a phenomenal home base for sightseeing and exploring the historical center of Rome.
It is so impressive to just wander around Rome. Our first night, we saw the fountains at Piazza Navona (more on that later), got the immediate first impression of the impressive historic buildings, and saw some people out on their Italian version of Halloween, and had dinner in a little restaurant. And on our first full day we saw more piazzas, outdoor markets, and a plethora of old buildings. We wandered past old ruins – the Foro di Traiano and Foro de Augusto, the signs of which indicated that it dates back to 2 BC, was in ruins by the 9th or 10th century, and completely built over in the 16th century.
Everything here is big, old, and completely over-the-top in history, grandiose magnitude, and detailing. There are huge fountains in the piazzas and little drinking fountains on street corners, all constantly pouring water like they have been for millennia. We were later told that all of the fountains are constantly streaming water because there is so much water pressure in the aqueduct from the Roman wells. We are incredulous, but who knows.
Mitch and I spent an afternoon at the Coliseum, a completely touristic yet completely worthwhile experience. Insider tip: if you want to spend an extra €5/person for a group tour, you effectively skip a gargantuan and slow-moving line. Just go to the front of the line, act like you want to skip the line and go in, and when the security guard tries to stop you, say you want to go on a tour. If they try to tell you to go back into the line, say that you were told to go right up to the ticket counter, and they eventually wave you on in.
It was a 45-minute tour with a guide named Sylvia – which was a whirlwind of information although apparently contradicted some of what Amy and Michael had heard in a tour a few years ago. But we can just report back on what we were told!
Rome was founded in the hills in 750 BC and later came down into the valley. In 64 AD, a giant fire destroyed everything and Nero embarked on a huge urban project, including a palace and lake at the site of what’s now the Coliseum. The Flavian dynasty built the Coliseum from 72 to 82 AD for the sole purpose of gladiator games – between people, animals, and between the two. It was built to be 60 meters tall with 4 different levels, 240 arches (80 per level) and could accommodate 70,000 spectators in individually numbered seats (separated by class and gender), plus originally a range of paintings, art, and sculpture.
The name “coliseum” came because it was built near Nero’s temples to Rome and Venus, which had a statue of Colossus by them. It also is responsible for the word “arena,” which originates from the Latin word for sand.
The first game, in 80 AD, was 100 consecutive days and resulted in the deaths of 2,000 gladiators and 5,000 animals. The “backstage” underground area was built later (in 82 AD) and was an underworld of dark, danger, and pungent odors. The underground area had 500 workers and a huge number of animals, and a crazy elevator system to raise animals and gladiators to the main arena.
Apparently each game started with animal games, then had an interlude of political executions before the main event of the gladiator fights. The animals were all shipped in, and never bred, which seems a horribly inefficient way of doing business. The gladiators might be citizens, slaves, or prisoners, and fought once or twice yearly for 12 years in order to achieve their desired goal based on their station in life – be it freedom or fame.
The last show involving gladiators was in 438, and the last show involving animals was in 523… and then it was abandoned. Apparently for years (decades, centuries) squatters lived in it, and it was used as a quarry for giant slabs of marble and other materials. Later on, for example, we passed by the ruins of a fish market from the middle ages and learned that the fish was displayed on marble pilfered from Roman ruins. It probably did a great job keeping the fish cold!
An interlude of tourists and food
After the Coliseum, we met up with Amy and Michael and went to the Trevi fountain, normally one of the more spectacular of Rome’s many spectacular public fountains. Unfortunately, it was covered in scaffolding – the upside of which is that you got to see it up-close from a walkway they built, and the downside is that you couldn’t actually see the fountain in action. It is worth noting that they had an instructional on exactly how and where to take a selfie in front of it. Hilarious.
We wandered over by the Spanish Steps, which we believe to be more densely crowded with tourists than Times Square. Plus, of course, the appropriate preponderance of overpriced shops. I tried to get a cannoli, and decided not to when they told me that the price was €5. For a cannoli, really?
Possibly the best thing about the Spanish Steps was that a coincidental conversation with another tourist overwhelmed by the tourists led us to an introduction with Marta, who we later hired for a private tour. More on that shortly.
For dinner, we found the Taverna Old Bear Roma. We were “early” (by Roman standards) so got a table without a reservation. We had haphazardly stumbled into it, but it was one of our best meals in Italy and totally worth a repeat visit. Everything there was magnificently delicious. Plus… We were on a spinach kick when we went (seriously, I don’t know how the Italians make their spinach so damned good), so we ended up ordering all three available spinach contorni (side dishes), which were pretty unforgettable.
The next morning, we wandered around and stopped at an adorable pasticceria which made fantastic ricotta pie and other treats, and a few shops (and Amy decided to get a pair of custom Italian shoes via disangiacomo.com), and enjoyed city life. We really enjoyed sitting for a while on a bench in the Piazza Navona – the piazza was bubbling with fountains, people, and artists. (Some of the artists really fantastic. Others a bit more questionable.)
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Rome is that you can actually just be wandering around, say “oh wow, that giant wall over there looks really old,” and then turn the corner and realize you’re talking about the Pantheon.
The Pantheon is about 2,000 years old and super impressive. Apparently it’s the largest and oldest unsupported concrete structure in the world. This has, of course, raised a lot of historical and architectural questions, and I was amused just this week to read an article about how its strength may come from the crystallization of volcanic ash that’s mixed in with the concrete.
It truly makes you marvel at the building power of the Romans because it is just so huge and impressive – yet somehow remarkably simple – in a way that we are barely able to replicate now, let alone understand how the ceiling hole and drainage system works.
So much to see, so much to eat
After the Pantheon, we had lunch at Il Buco, apparently recommended by a friend of Amy and Michael’s, open since 1901, and currently relying much more on reputation than actual good food or service.
There is a huge and magnificently impressive building in the middle of town, which we had been admiring and decided to check out. It’s the Unification Monument at the Piazza Venezia, built in the 1880s as a memorial of Italy’s unification and absolutely gorgeous from all sides.
We didn’t get to check out the museum inside because we got there just before it closed. But the outside is super impressive, both from afar and closer in, where you can see the stone-still guards in front of a tomb of an unknown soldier and outrageous sculptures. More exciting, if you go up toward the top, there are beautiful views all around and some seagulls that seemed to enjoy interacting with our camera.
One thing in Rome… if you want to be entertained, stop into churches. Any churches. All churches. Religion aside, there is always something interesting and stunning to check out. So we stopped into the 17th century Basilica Santa Maria de Aracoeli, where there was an abundance of chandeliers, stained glass with bee imagery, and an altar with what appeared to be a dancing St. Francis. (No, really.)
Outside, we saw a bird migration that appears to happen daily at sunset here in Rome at this time of year. It’s pretty impressive. If you’re there in October, at sunset stop whatever you’re doing and look up. It’s not quite as impressive as the bats in Battambang, Cambodia, but it’s still pretty sweet… birds just streaming across the sky.
Wandering on from there, we passed Teatro Marcella, began in 13 BC by Julius Caesar and used as an architectural model for Roman theaters and coliseums. Bonus prize is that people currently live in apartments on the top floors. Which has to be the most awesome address to give out for house parties.
We decided to wander through the Jewish ghetto briefly. There are a few Jewish shops, some Italian delis that may or may not have Jewish roots, and a winding array of back alleys that are probably fun to explore during the day.
Then we crossed the Tiber River for the first time, and immediately felt like there was a more chill, slightly Bohemian, West Village vibe on the other side. We stopped by Santa Maria in Trastavere Church, where a sermon was being conducted, so we sat in the back and attempted to unobtrusively admire the artwork, floors, etc.
Then a less-than-impressive dinner at Osteria di Umberto, which had been recommended by the manager of the apartment we were renting. The next morning, the two of us woke up early for a half-day tour at the Vatican, which we decided was worth its own blog post (what with it being a sovereign nation and all).
Art Tour with Marta
We mentioned earlier that we coincidentally met a tour guide named Marta at the Spanish Steps, and on a whim decided to book her for a half day private tour a few days later. Whether by coincidence or fate, we ran into her again by the Unification Monument, and then again mid-tour at the Vatican. She was fantastic – we could not recommend her more highly and it was a completely worthwhile way to spend an afternoon. Marta’s card lists her website as www.yourguideinrome.com, but it doesn’t seem to be working at the moment, so she gave us her email address as this and her phone number as +39-380-478-1516.
Marta has a background in art history but is also knowledgeable about Rome’s history, Catholicism, and a range of other topics. We met her near the Vatican, where she gave us a lot of interesting background that we included in that post.
We had charged her with finding less touristed artistic highlights around the city, and so we slowly meandered between the sites she had chosen while we asked her a wide range of questions and she gave us a ton of interesting back stories.
For example, we had been curious about the Madonnas that are on street corners all around the city – some beautifully complex and others lovely and simple. Apparently they were created as community projects and funded by the residents of each street; decoration was the Roman way of welcoming people.
Then we walked by Angel’s Castle, which started as Hadrian’s tomb, an old Roman mausoleum. Side note, did you know the English words “vandal” and “vandalize” came from the role the Vandals had in the fall of the Roman empire? Anyhow… the Angel’s Castle later became Catholic (as did everything here) and served as a fort if and when the Pope needed protection, and became a high-security prison during the 1500’s and the Inquisition.
The bridge over the Tiber River that leads right to Angel’s Castle is flanked by 12 huge and incredible sculptures. They are all copies of what were originally Berninis (like many of the mind-blowing works you see here). Apparently during World War II, the original Bernini sculptures were brought to the Vatican for storage and safekeeping and replaced here with copies, but the originals never quite made it out of storage. They are still magnificent.
Then we stopped by the Pasquino sculpture, a super old outdoor piece of unknown origin. Apparently in the old (oooold) days, students would gather here to read poetry, often reading from behind Pasquino and joking that the sculpture was the one doing the talking. During the Inquisition, people were not allowed to criticize the government, so they would anonymously post complaints on Pasquino. That tradition continues to this day, and there are still little pieces of paper with government critique posted on and around the sculpture.
Next, Marta took us to the Piazza Navona. We had obviously spent quite a bit of time there already, but we gained new appreciation with her insights. Apparently one of the family’s members became a pope, so their wealth, family home, impressiveness of piazza, and family church all grew.
The central fountain was sculpted by Bernini (no wonder it’s so impressive) in 1650. It represents the four rivers of the four continents (Rio de la Plata, Danube, Ganga, and Nile), and we enjoyed hearing the stories behind the depictions of the four rivers. For example, the Nile covers his head because it was so mysterious; both because of the unknown mouth of the river and that it curiously ran south to north.
The sculpture of the four rivers is topped with an obelisk of, as Marta put it, “long-term Egyptian borrow.” The obelisks around Rome are fascinating in their own right. Cleopatra visited Roma in approximately 44 BC, around the time of Julius Caesar’s death. The alliance brought 13 Egyptian obelisks to Rome, some of which were buried and rediscovered later, and some were later decorated with fake and meaningless hieroglyphs to make them appear more authentic.
Marta then took us by the French church and piazza to the “San Matteo Chapel,” so called because it houses three Caravaggios detailing San Matteo. Caravaggio was apparently rebellious but genius (what might be now known as an artistic spirit) – he painted without models or sketches, had no studio, but a photographic memory. He had no money and would sell paintings for food. Marta explained a funny story about a painting of his that’s now considered a masterpiece (the fruit bowl), which he tried to sell in order to feed himself. Unfortunately, no one would buy it because it depicted a bruised apple, so he ultimately could only sell the frame. Crazy, right? Apparently his paintings are here in this church because a bishop across the street protected him. Caravaggio died at age 36 en route back to Rome after returning from banishment for a crime that he may or may not have committed.
Next up was the Church Della Maddalena, which has the oldest organ in Rome, dating back to the 1700’s. Almost more interesting was the décor all around it, which appears to be marble but is actually all wood with gold plating and painted in lacquer.
Then we made a brief stop for refreshment at Gelateria Della Palma, where there was an overwhelming selection of delicious gelato flavors. You want chocolate? There were about 30 chocolates to choose from.
Minerva’s chicken is a funny story resulting in an obelisk placed in/on a sculpture of an elephant by Bernini. The obelisk itself is apparently the twin of the one by the Pantheon; the two were found in the garden of a monastery, and one was given to Bernini to sculpt around. Apparently the Pope criticized him sufficiently to piss him off (the debate was apparently over whether there needed to be a base under the obelisk under the elephant), so Bernini tastefully responded by pointing an exposed elephant ass (tail to the side) toward the Pope. Well played.
Just inside from there, we went to Chiesa Santa Maria de Minerva, gothic style and dating back to the medieval 1300’s to early 1400’s. In addition to gorgeous stained glass, there is a beautiful Michelangelo sculpture. Apparently, much like in the Sistene Chapel, Michelangelo made it nude and the Pope objected. Michelangelo (as artists are wont to do) refused to change the piece and cover him up, so the Pope got a different artist to add the gold equivalent of a fig leaf. Marta also used this sculpture as an example of Michelangelo’s impressive skill with perspective – remarkable that he took into account the direction and angle from which the sculpture was meant to be viewed.
The church had a dark blue sky and star ceiling motif that was traditional for all old churches. Apparently some of the churches with more ornate ceilings (such as the Sistene Chapel) were originally painted like this and then artistically changed later on. It also has the tomb of Beato Angelico, a 1300’s – 1400’s great painter. Plus Bernini sculptures, because, as the Italians would say, “Why not?!”
The last major bit of our tour with Marta included learning about the Jesuits. Apparently during the Inquisition a number of churches popped up (ex: the era of Martin Luther) against Catholicism, to which the Catholic Church responded with an excellent marketing campaign. They authorized several branches to start their own churches (the Domincans, Jesuits, etc.) with the Pope’s ultimate control.
One focus of the Jesuits was to evaluate the gifts of their brothers and develop them, so the tradition became a breeding ground for painters, singers, architects, etc. One of the greats was Padre Pozzo, who died in 1701. We went into Chiesa de San Ignacio, bigger than the main Jesuit church nearby, which has a lot of Padre Pozzo’s art. His influence is also felt in the surrounding Piazza di San Ignacio, which used to be apartments managed by the Jesuits and is architecturally stunning.
Inside the church, Padre Pozzo made masterful, absolutely brilliant perspective paintings, so the flat roof of the church looks like it has a huge arch and dome, as well as gorgeous sculptures. The church also has the tomb of Pope Gregorius 15, which is ridiculously over-the-top with literally uncountable different marbles. Each time we would try to count the marbles or notice more details, we would find something new and exciting to notice. Jesus may have taught humility, but there is nothing humble about Popes… or at least about their tombs!
After we left Marta, we had a glass of wine in front of the Pantheon, while listening to street performer opera singers (when in Rome…) and then popped into a few shops before wandering around for a dinner break.
We accidentally went to Antica Taverna, where the vibe didn’t immediately pull us in but the staff was so lovely and friendly and the food looked decent so we decided to sit down. And it was totally delicious and lovely. Why can’t all restaurants you randomly stumble into in the world be as good?
After dinner, we arrived back at the apartment all slightly tipsy, and got some news from home… Mitch’s grandma Lila had had what we later found out to be a bilateral brain stem stroke. She was found peacefully yet unconsciously sitting in a chair in her apartment and taken to the hospital. We all ended up having a sleepless night while Amy and Michael decided whether or not to fly back to the US a day earlier than planned and we got regular updates from the hospital while the doctors figured out what had happened.
The Villa Borghese
The next day, Amy decided to stay back while Mitch, Jewels, and Michael went to the Villa Borghese. Because of their ticketing structure, you have to pre-register for a 2-hour time slot for your visit, and they do sell out. It was a totally worthwhile experience (as were the audio guides), even though we were exhausted from the night’s news.
The house itself is beautiful, but obviously an exercise in excess. In some rooms the walls (and everything, really) were actually marble; in the other rooms everything was painted to look like marble. There were ancient Greek sculptures to more recent paintings, the artwork was an accelerated look at the last few millennia of human history.
A few highlights… an Antonello oil painting (from when oil was starting to be a thing) that was so precise it looked like a photograph. The audio guide said that the eyebrow hairs were literally painted with a single-hair brush. There were mosaics in frames on walls so detailed that it was easy to mistake them for paintings at first. And this weird carousel type thing that was detailed sculpture, but they had it set up to spin quickly while a strobe light flashed on it, creating a comic book style battle scene. The winner may have been this fan-fucking-tastic Bernini of Apollo and Daphne as she’s morphing into a laurel tree.
There were also opportunities to learn a bit about the family and culture. For example, the Cardinal’s bedroom had 1530-style religiously-appropriate porn… paintings of naked women with captions explaining how pleasure of the senses is wrong. Apparently the family was closely tied to Napoleon through a marriage with Napoleon’s sister, and this family Cardinal was the son/nephew of a pope, and effectively the Secretary of State in his time. (I think we pointed out elsewhere that the English word “nepotism” etymologically descends from the Italian word for “nephew” because the sons of popes were often called “nephews” and given special treatment.)
After the Borghese, we went back to the apartment, got Amy, and then all four of us went back to Taverna Old Bear for a last lovely (albeit exhausted) and delicious Italian dinner.
Our last day
Amy and Michael were scheduled to leave a day earlier than we were, so we woke up to see them off at 5am, then slept more and packed. We had the driver that they had found pick us up to take us to our AirBnb room for our last night in Rome, which was in a totally non-central area of the city. If you need a driver in Rome, Alberto was email responsive, always early, very professional, and somehow charged completely reasonable rates for airport trips and otherwise.
We had a little snafu with our AirBnb room and had to wait 45 minutes for them to arrive to let us in, but then had a nice chat with Michele, who has traveled a lot, has interests similar to ours, and is also involved in film production. It was interesting to hear some of his views about Italy, the economy, local religion (he said that the new pope doesn’t bring any real change but is just better for press), the local food movement, etc. Plus it was interesting to spend a night out of the touristy historical center of the city and to get a glimpse of cultural and ethnic diversity and a feeling of “where real people live.”
After settling in, we decided to take a bus toward the city center for our last day abroad on our extended honeymoon. We tried to go to Trattoria Monti for lunch, which we had heard was good, but it was fully reserved. We walked around for a bit and then had lunch at Pasta All’uovo on Via Merulana, a small and adorable fancy-grocery-type shop with a few tables and a simple lunch menu. The food was good, they served enormous glasses of wine complementary with lunch, and the owners/waiters/cooks were super sweet and lovely.
After that, we embarked on our last day of (tipsy) sightseeing without a destination in mind. Promo idea: someone needs to offer wine and church tours of Rome.
We went to Piazza Paolo, where there is a giant obelisk with hieroglyphs. Then, not knowing where we were going, we went into the side door of Basilica San Giovanni in Laterano, where most of the visitors were priests, monks, and nuns. We paid €1 for a totally worthwhile audio guide, which explained that this was the first legal church after Christian persecution ended, and was the seat of the papacy for 10 centuries. It was actually publicly built by Constantine in 324 AD, the first church he built after he started to support Christianity in 313 AD.
There is the tomb of Pope Martin V, where the crypt was built in 1443 and people toss money into it, as well as a 15th century statue of St. John the Baptist. Apparently Charlemagne was baptized here, and there are (maybe) relic heads of St. Peter and St. Paul, and apparently also a fragment of the table from the last supper. The historical pride extends to the organ, which was apparently played by Handel. And there are 12 14-foot tall apostle statues and a gorgeous floor in the swirling patterns like in the Trastavere church, and there are confessionals that people can pop into that are marked by language for confessing ease.
After a few stops by souvenir shops (the gay priest calendar for my uncles and a “Roma” shirt for Mitch’s Grandma Roma), we popped into the Basilica di San Clemente, where they had nice lighting and a gorgeous mosaic in the main arch, apparently from the 12th – 13th century. It was built on top of a 4th century basilica which was in turn built over a Nero building that was destroyed in 64 AD, and somehow also geographically over a valley with St. Clemente’s corpse. Sadly, no photos allowed. They do have a bathroom available for the public (very useful), where there was a line for the men’s room but not the women’s.
Wandering around more, we were drawn to a huge fluted Roman column statue, which we decided to check out as our last stop before heading back. Then the Basilica Papale Santa Maria Maggiore, where there was a beautiful stained glass window that felt very Jewish, a mosaic arch (€1 to light it), swirling mosaic floors, angel frames for paintings, and a breathtaking Madonna statue.
We took a bus back to our AirBnb, intending to go out for dinner. It started raining buckets, and when we went out in search of food, we got absolutely drenched and didn’t want to search in the pouring rain. (Literally, we had to pack our clothing wet and let our shoes keep drying on the plane.)
So we skipped a romantic last honeymoon meal together and instead reminisced over early photos from this epic trip. The next morning, all the Roman schools were closed because of the rain, but Alberto picked us up at 10am to go to the airport.
It was completely and utterly surreal to sit on a plane, and it didn’t hit us for quite a while that we were flying back to the US after 12+ months away. A four-hour flight to Oslo, 90-minute layover, and then an eight-hour flight to New York City, capital of the world, and the totally terrifying prospect of returning home.
A closing thought… The Italians have a tendency to say “why not” instead of yes… I love it! Should we go to Rome? Why not?! Should we go on a long honeymoon? Why not?!
We expect we’ll blog a bit more about our return home and general thoughts on extended travel… financial feasibility, what to bring, reminiscing, and upcoming adventures. But for the moment, we’re signing off and settling back into life at home!
But before we go, here’s the full set of photos from Rome for your slide-showing pleasure.