Monday, April 19, 2010

When in Rome...

Everyone told me that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you can’t see it in one day either, so we set aside five days to explore the great city. We were reluctant to leave Venice Wednesday morning, but had to move on to our next city, so we boarded the train again (yes!) and headed south.

In my travels, I often imagine cities as they were at their peak, and get a nasty shock when I realize that today they are just modern cities with hints of their long history. This happened in Rome. As our train pulled in to the station, looking at the graffiti on the buildings, I realized that Rome is, after all, a city, with lots of people, lots of cars, and noise. Fortunately, this city has a lot of other things to offer.

After checking into our hostel, we walked down to the Coliseum, took some pictures from the outside, and tried to find our way to the nearest McDonald’s, where we were told there would be a free tour. Seeing so many McDonald’s was also a shock. Aix doesn’t have McDonald’s, or Burger King, or Starbucks. It seems to be one of the only European cities that has successfully kept these fat food joints out. I vowed not to eat McDonald’s in Europe, and have so far kept my promise, although I may have to try it sometime because I hear the meat is of a better quality here. But anyway, we met a tour group at the golden arches and received a very detailed tour of Roman architecture and art history. The Romans liked to steal columns from the Egyptians, so these towering pillars dot the city, always topped by some sort of Christian symbol, which makes for an interesting mix. Although I complained about Rome’s “cityness,” its architecture is really beautiful, and the buildings come in lots of pink and yellow colors, as well as traditional grey.

Our knowledgeable tour guide took us to the popular tourist spots, such as the Spanish Steps (crammed with too many tourists) and the Trevi Fountain (also crammed with too many tourists.) Legend has it that if you throw one coin in the Fountain, you’ll come back to Rome some day. Throw two, and you’ll fall in love there. Throw three, and you’ll get married there. Throw your blood in the fountain, and you’ll have all three and good luck for life… This last one I made up, actually, because just as we were posing for pictures next to the massive fountain, jostling for a good position, I got a bloody nose. Although I would like to say that it was because of a fight with another tourist to get close to the fountain, I have no idea why it happened, but it makes for a good story.

Wednesday night Bre and I met up with some of my friends from Aix who were also in Rome, and we went out for some pasta. (Real Italian lasagna is so much better than anything I have tasted in the States, and I don’t think I could duplicate it if I tried.) After dinner, Bre and I walked around the monuments, hoping to find them less busy at 9PM, but no luck. We walked up to the top of the Spanish steps and watched some German school group singing campfire songs, and met some interesting people from California. Around midnight we went back to the Trevi Fountain and finally got to get close enough to touch the water. And then they closed it for cleaning.

Thursday we got up early and took the metro to the Vatican. While waiting in line to enter St. Peter’s Basilica, we got a good look at another Egyptian column topped with a cross, and the podium where the Pope addresses the public. (We missed the Pope himself.) After the guards checked to make sure our clothing was acceptable (no sandals or bare shoulders) we entered St. Peter’s. I could go on and on about this church, because it was truly magnificent. I never understood how large it is, but it is the largest Catholic church in the world (although a church in Africa supposedly claims otherwise). We wandered its cavernous rooms for over an hour, and my neck hurt from looking up at the ceiling so much.

We also took a tour of the Vatican Museum, but made the mistake of paying a hefty price for a horrible tour guide. She didn’t tell us anything new and never explained the paintings we were looking at, and by the end of the tour Bre and I were going to demand a refund. But then we reached the Sistine Chapel and forgot our frustration. Like everything else important in Rome and the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel was packed with people. No longer really a chapel and more just a piece of art, the room was humid and buzzing with low chatting, although the guards yelled “No Talking!” every few minutes. I also got a sore neck from looking up at this ceiling, and it was awesome to finally see Michelangelo’s great work in person. There is so much detail in the artwork, and all on the ceiling. I can’t imagine how hard it was for him to do it, but he did.

I would have stayed at the Vatican Museum longer, but it was closing, so we headed back to our hostel and had free (yes!) pasta for dinner. The next day (Friday) we toured the Coliseum and the Roman Forum. By this time, I was exhausted and a little sick of looking at old things and contemplating their significance, but it was a nice day and good to sit on the steps of a temple and nap. (oops!). It was also cool to see where Julius Caesar was burned, and made me want to read some Shakespeare. (Et tu, Brute?) After that Bre obliged me by going to the sight of a scene from “Roman Holiday” where Audrey Hepburn sticks her hand in La Bocca della Verita (Mouth of Truth). Big surprise, there was a line to take your picture with it, and a small fee, so I just took a quick picture through the gate.

Friday night we went out with some British friends we’d made in the hostel. I’m delighted to learn that pasties (my favorite yooper food) are everywhere in England (since they came from Cornwall) and you can buy them at the grocery store basically anywhere. If I make it to the UK, I will surely find some. We had so much fun Friday night that on Saturday we decided to take it easy and found a gorgeous park, where we took a long nap in the sunshine. The rest of Rome was similarly lazy, and we were ready to move on to Spain.

To me, Italy, and especially Florence, was very similar to Southern France, and I didn't find many extreme cultural difference like I did in Greece. The few real Italians we encountered seemed more expressive and loud than the French, but like I said, most of the people we saw were tourists, and the real Italia remains a mystery to me.

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