Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Eight days in Rome

A diary of part of my trip to Italy, written partly for the reason diaries are written and partly in the hope that someone might benefit from it:

Day One: spend in and around JFK due to missed connection. Think twice about flying Delta in future.

Day Two: spend morning sleeping. Afternoon: walk around the Forum and the Colosseum. Tickets are much cheaper if you are an EU citizen (not necessarily resident as the guidebooks say--my green card was all the evidence I needed, although that was not the case elsewhere). I can't say much worthwhile about this stuff, but the guidebooks and online guides seem to expect you to whip through quickly. We didn't exactly linger, but it took more than a few minutes to see all the things we wanted to see. There's also a nice, and very small, exhibition in the actual forum building showing glassware, mosaics, and friezes. One frieze had a cow, a sheep, and a pig, and was one of my favorite sights in Rome. (This is one way I judge art: has it got animals in it?)

Day Three: Pantheon then the Dorling Kindersley walk based on tombs, legends, and artists of Rome. The Castel Sant' Angelo looks very cool (we didn't go in), and we visited the Piazza Navona on the way, with its massive fountain. The walk takes MUCH longer than the advertised two hours even if you skip some bits and get all passive aggressive with the family about hurrying up before the crypt closes at 6:00. I think it actually closed at 6:30, or at least some time after we left. Inside the crypt are four rooms with dirt floors and decorations on the walls and ceilings made from human bones. There are also whole skeletons, some with partially mummified faces. The idea is to remind us of death. A guide I overheard pointed out that the remains are anonymous, and many of the bones are separated from the rest of their skeletons to form patterns made only from hip bones, and so on. At the end is a clock made of bones with no hands, to indicate that death is eternal, and a figure of death made from a skeleton plus other bones for the scythe, etc., and a message in multiple languages: "What you are now we were, what we are now you shall be." Apparently elsewhere nearby is a grave marked only with the words: "Here lies ashes, dust, nothing." It sounds like desecration, but it didn't feel that way to me. Morbid all the same, and not something I would go in for. I think you could pass out if you stayed there long enough.

Funny how objects can make you think something, or of something. They don't quite say that you are going to die and become something close to trash, and they don't exactly show it either. But they come pretty close to forcing that thought on you. The Italian for one way (as in one way street) is senso unico: unique sense. These bones all point in one direction and have a pretty singular, well defined sense.

Day Four: Sleep in (i.e. almost all morning--still jet-lagged). Find out that National Museum of Rome is not open today, because it's Monday. Abandon that part of day's plans. Discover great breakfast place and supermarket. Head to Vatican stopping at the Piazza Campo de Fiori along the way. There is supposed to be a great flower market here, but there weren't that many flowers. There was a market though. Fantastic vegetable stalls, and salesmen demonstrating a tool to make spirals out of vegetables. For some reason they especially encouraged people to eat these vegetables with chicken. "If you don't lava chicken then you lava dog." I get that lava = love, but I don't know what the dog reference means, except that the man who said this had, for some reason, a toy chicken and a toy dog. Eat pizza in the piazza in front of St Peter's then head to the Trevi fountain, and back home. Lots of walking, which is good. I didn't know that Rome is such a beautiful city. In the evening we walk to the Tempietto and on up to the top (or nearly) of the Janiculum Hill. Views of rooftops and domes across the city and beyond. Here is possibly the coolest bar in the world, with great views, very comfortable-looking chairs and sofas, tvs showing Ukraine v. Sweden in the European Championship, and a dj playing a woman singing a jazz version of Radiohead's "Creep" (possibly Karen Souza). Then back down the hill for gelato in Trastevere.

Day Five: a proper(-ish) visit to the Vatican. We almost didn't do this because of hearing about the long lines and the crowds inside. But being at St Peter's yesterday and seeing what looked like fast-moving lines made me start kicking myself for passing up the opportunity to see the Sistine Chapel and the School of Athens. So we ordered tickets online when we got back to the apartment yesterday and here we are. Turned out the lines I saw were for St Peter's, not the museums, which you enter a long way round the back. After that panicked hike (our tickets were for a specific time) there was no line and we had no trouble getting in. Inside was crowded but not too bad. Crowded enough, though, that if you actually wanted to look at any artworks along the way to the Sistine Chapel and not in a side gallery you would be pretty much out of luck. Worst by far are the tour groups, whose members split off to take a photograph or look at something and then push everyone out of the way to catch back up. Grr. They all caught up with us in the room with Raphael's School of Athens. Oh well, I saw it. And then you get to the Sistine Chapel itself, which is slightly less packed. There is great art all around, tourists all around, and a guard shouting "Silence!" and "shhh!!" every few seconds. We left about an hour after going in and the lines were much longer then. I'm glad I went, but much more because I would have regretted it otherwise than because I had such a great aesthetic experience. It's really no way to see art. Had to do it though. (After some thought, I think the best thing would be either to skip the Vatican completely or else go in planning to spend hours, at least half a day, so that you can see things when the crowds are thinner and just sit it out in the meantime.) Then lunch and the long, gelato-punctuated walk home for a rest before dinner. In the evening we walked around our neighborhood, Trastevere. Winding alleys led past gelateria, trattoria, pizzeria, a few shops still open, and into a piazza or two with fountains and a band playing (what movies would lead you to believe is) classic Italian street music. Fantastic, like a come-to-Italy advert.

Day Six: Must get up earlier. We keep waking up after nine, and by the time we've all showered, got dressed, had breakfast, figured out where we're going, etc., it's after eleven. Good for blogging like this, but bad for sight-seeing. When we get going we go to the National Museum of Rome in Palazzo Massimo, which is full of the kind of noseless, armless, and headless statues you might expect. But there's also a sarcophagus carved with crowds of Roman soldiers conquering Germans:

On the top floor there are whole rooms of murals and mosaics from ancient Roman houses, including one large room painted to look like a grove of trees with lots of blue sky and birds (see small and not-vivid-enough picture below--it's much better in real life, another top sight in Rome). In the middle of the museum is an open space surrounded by orange trees, which is what I think they would grow in heaven.

If I had brought my UK pasport it would have been quite a bit cheaper, but I won't complain. Then across the street to the Termini bus station and on to Villa Borghese. You buy your tickets in advance for a specific time, and we got there an hour early, which was just enough for lunch and a couple of cappuccinos. The museum/gallery never gets too crowded because of the timed tickets, which is something the Vatican museums might learn from. You go for the Caravaggios (famous name) and the Berninis (incredible presentation of marble (literally hard rock in Italian, as far as I can tell) as soft flesh) and a Canova (hard rock as soft cushions), but what really delights you are the ceilings, which come as a complete surprise (to me) and feature 3-D-looking satyrs and strange figures like a dog-headed man with wings. There's other playfulness too, like a chariot with horses falling towards you rather than the usual secure angels and God looking down. This and the Bellini and Cranach paintings (one of each) are much more my scene than Michelangelo or Raphael, frankly. The best sights are the ones you don't expect, so calling this a must-see might be self-defeating, but I would say you should visit this ahead of the Vatican museums, not because of what painters I prefer but because the environment is so much more compatible with pleasure. It's less crowded and the art is more fun. In the evening we show some friends of ours a little of Trastevere, and go into the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, which is a revelation. The church is from the fourth century, and is, I believe, the first church in Rome dedicated to Mary, and may have been the first church in Rome where mass was celebrated openly. The ceiling and upper wall at the end facing the entrance are covered in mosaics, with lots of gold. If they had services in English I would go to church here. At least once. It's spectacular. Then dinner in the Ghetto, traditional Roman food, which involves lots of frying. Tasty.

Day Seven: Ostia Antica. A Roman city buried in the sand until relatively recently, so a bit like Pompeii (to which I've never been, so can't compare). It's mostly in ruins, but some murals and mosaics survive, as well as parts of statues, columns, and plenty of walls. You can climb about in the ruins and make your own finds, and some ruins are even overgrown, which makes it all the more fun. You could easily spend a whole day here. We almost did, but left because the heat was getting to us. Dinner in the main square in Trastevere. Wonderful atmosphere, but the food was less good (in general it has not been nearly as fantastic as other people have led us to expect (apart from the gelato), but none of it has been bad--until now, when my son's pasta was under-cooked and my wife's risotto over-salted). The Caprese salad (mozzarella and tomato), though, was unbelievably good. I've had this often before and had no idea it could taste like this. Wow.

Day Eight: our last day in Rome. Must try to come back, but in the meantime, what to include and what to miss out on? We start with a disappointing walk around Trastevere. You can't beat breakfast for four for 7 euros, but it's a little too hot out (about 90 Fahrenheit), the "bustling" food market is underwhelming, and the permanent exhibition at the museum of life in Rome is closed to make way for photographs of no interest to the family. A cheap lunch of pizza slices to go would be good, but we need to sit down, so we go for the more expensive option. I'm glad we have credit cards. And I think I've discovered the secret of the mozzarella and tomatoes: lots of olive oil and salt. A rest at the apartment before venturing out for one last look at the forum and Colosseum. In the evening we go back to the coolest bar in the world. The velvet rope suggests it's closed but some people are allowed in so I ask. We get in! The drinks are far from cheap, but you get so much free food (focaccia, crudités, nuts) that it's almost a free dinner.     

Notes on Rome:

There are amazing, do-not-touch quality antiquities all over the place, and they are very much touchable in fact. Around them is a normal, tourist-filled, graffitied city of narrow lanes and wide avenues. Not so normal is the quality of the architecture. In the centre of the city, at least, (an area of several square miles) almost every building is tasteful and classic-looking. The worst are a little shabby or showy, but nothing is ugly. Lots of trees and fountains. High quality drinking water pours constantly from drinking fountains on the street. A strong smell of urine in the streets. From dogs? Homeless people? There aren't many beggars, but those there are seem somehow very old-fashioned. These aren't young drug addicts but, mostly, handicapped people and (people I imagine to be) gypsies. It is hot, but not unbearably so. Traffic is a little crazy, but more like dodgem cars at the fair then anything mean-spirited. People argue, even stopping and blocking the street to get out and make a point, but the person I saw do this was a woman who stopped to yell at a man. There was no sense that things might turn violent. No road rage. Just some drivers who play too rough and need to be told.

The Romans know how to live (even if, presumably, most of them can't afford to live as if they were on vacation all the time). Cappuccino for one euro ($1.25) and pastries for breakfast. A light lunch on the go (good in theory, but inconceivable when you're hot and tired and need to sit down) or a huge lunch for which you pay only about what I would pay for lunch at home (close to $10 if eating out). Then a nap. More cappuccino and/or gelato throughout the day. Then dinner as the main entertainment in the evening. You can walk all over the place, but there's excellent public transport too. I was expecting it to be good, but I had no idea it would be this good. In case that seems more a reflection on me than anything else, a well-traveled friend of ours who visits Paris often said that she intended to switch to Rome from now on.

Travel advice: Lots of websites give suggested itineraries, and these are worth looking at. But they seem to expect you to have no jet-lag, to want to spend very little time looking at each place you visit, not to think twice about paying to go into a museum that they expect you to be in for less than half an hour, and to be able to get from one place to another just like that. If anything says "Now make your way to..." look it up on the map. They might be expecting you to take a bus or even a taxi. This could get expensive, and it takes time to figure out which bus you need, where to get tickets, etc. Also, guidebooks can't always be trusted. Ours gave the wrong address for one building (it didn't matter--it was right next door--but it brought the point home) and showed a bus route that was at best out of date and at worst simply wrong. Walking lets you find things as surprises, which is always better than going to them because someone else told you you should. It also allows you to see the city more than you can from a bus. But it also gets hot and can be tiring, so buses and trams are your friends. There is something called a Roma Pass for museums. We didn't buy one, but I strongly suspect we should have. Investigate.

Here's what I would recommend seeing, in order of priority:

1. The Forum and Colosseum, plus as much as you can manage of the Capitol (museums we didn't go into and great view of the Forum) and Palatine (we didn't go, but friends who did raved about it)
2. The National Museum of Rome (there are several branches: the one in the Palazzo Massimo is the one I mean) and Villa Borghese
3. The Pantheon and as many of the famous churches and fountains as you can manage
4. The Vatican, if you feel up to it. Try to see Castel Sant'Angelo while you're in the area, even if only from the outside
5. Ostia Antica
6. The churches of Trastevere, the Tempietto, and the Janiculum hill

OK, that's probably more than enough. Really you would need at least a month to see it all at a pace that allowed you to enjoy the experience. After Rome we visited Montepulciano, Lucca, Florence, Pisa, San Gimignano, and Siena. All very good. But not a patch on Rome. 


  1. Good to have you back blogging, and to hear you all had a good time.

    Thanks for the notes from Ostia Antica. I've never been there, nor to Villa Borghese. Both sound great. Next time I'll make sure we go. Unfortunately it won't be this summer. In three days we leave for Italy, but will stay only in the south.

    If you like 3-D-looking paintings, you should pay a visit to Chiesa di Sant'Ignazio di Loyola a Campo Marzio when you return to Rome. The ceiling fresco by Andrea Pozzo is truly amazing, featuring angles, satyres, Jesus and St. Ingnazio himself.

  2. Thanks, vh. That was one of the churches I wanted to visit but never got to. It does look like an amazing ceiling.

    I've heard that the south of Italy is very nice. I hope you have a good time there.

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