Everyone knows Rome was not built in a day; therefore, it stands to reason that it cannot be seen in a day. We were painfully aware of this fact when we filed off Brilliance of the Seas at the port of Civitavecchia and raced to the train station.
Rome. Just the name of the Eternal City conjured a myriad of visions, emotions, and yep, I’m going there, worries. Trying to be an educated tourist, I had done some reading on Rome beforehand. Just a few tidbits filled my heart with dread:
- Roving, thieving bands of gypsies. Every European tourist encounters them but the blogs I’d read about Rome made it sounds as though we would be stalked like injured wildebeasts at every turn;
- Traffic. My “educational” efforts assured me that if we weren’t harrassed and picked clean by the gypsies we would almost certainly die either in a taxi accident or while attempting to cross streets;
- Roman streets. Rome is not exactly laid out on a handy grid system like many North American cities; in fact, as I perused maps I became convinced that Roman streets make no sense;
- Language. Me no speak Italian except words that my children really shouldn’t hear in any language (although they almost sound pretty in Italian – as does everything else).
Thus “educated,” I spent the hour train trip into Termini station thoroughly wound up, gripping my money belt. However, the scenery was disarmingly lovely as the train clattered along. The money belt was hot and itchy. I dozed, listening to the rapidfire Italian spoken around us.
Lesson quickly learned: Rome doesn’t have to make sense…because it’s Rome. Romans could care less about me and my North American paranoias. They are having way too much fun living La Dolce Vita and being Roman. Rome greeted me as I walked off the train and whispered in my ear: “Buongiorno, Bella. Welcome. You are here. You will see. You will fall in love. Trust me.”
Rome, stunning, ancient, yes, imperfect and sometimes maddening, was delicious, bold, and made me feel alive – just like a good strong cup of espresso. I saw more stray cats than gypsies. After an hour in that magical place, I unfolded my arms and tried to wrap them around Rome. And, Rome hugged me back. “I told you so,” she whispered.
Time was our only foe that day. We had to utilize taxis to save time. First stop: The Colosseum. Horrid lineup – over an hour. On my own, I might not have bothered but our son had a yen to see it and after bailing on the lines at the Uffizi in Florence, we owed him. Once in the Colosseum, we wandered around the immense space (in its day it held 55,000 peeps). I feel pangs of guilt saying that it kind of underwhelmed me. The view over the Palatine Hill and the ruins there looked more interesting – which made me want to be…on the Palatine Hill. If only we had time to truly wander at our leisure…
Hailed another cab. Roman driving did not disappoint. I was tempted to scream “Weeeeeeeeee” as we careened through pedestrians, Vespas, and an inordinate number of Fiats but I was afraid of distracting the driver. As if. Roman taxi drivers are unflappable. Lesson learned: Romans embrace life because they are living on borrowed time – especially if they get behind the wheel (or handlebars) of a vehicle. Roman streets are impossibly narrow and congested. No one cares. They hurl themselves and their cars into spaces not big enough for a stray cat let alone a Fiat. Life is short, live fast. If you survive, treat yourself to a gelato immediately. Fortify yourself with espresso for the next round. And so on.
Survived the drive to the Pantheon. As our taxi roared off, we stood in front of a sombre looking building that dwarfed everything around it. I’m ashamed to say my 11 yr. old knew more about this place; I had no idea what to expect. The church doesn’t scream for attention. It doesn’t seduce with sparkling mosaic tiles like the Duomo. It doesn’t intimidate with gilt (and guilt) like St. Peter’s.
Inside – wow. The architectural marvel that it is combined with the dazzling paintings and statues are like a one-two punch to the head. It was dizzying. Chest tight with emotion, I wandered in to the most unimposing but imposing place I’ve ever been. Maybe it was the shaft of light shining through the perfect oculus at the top of the rotunda. Unlike other cathedrals I’d seen, it has no fancy stained glass or ornate gothic windows. In fact, the Pantheon’s only source of light is the oculus in the dome. I would love to see it at night.
After the Pantheon, we stood blinking in the sunlight, assessing the time situation. Piazza Navona – billed as one of the most beautiful squares in Rome and allegedly home to some good, authentic trattorias – sacrificed. It is downrght criminal to have to sacrifice anything in Rome but such was our situation.
The Trevi Fountain was relatively close so we headed through a maze of slender side streets lined with ancient houses. We stumbled upon wee cathedrals, lovely apartment buildings with inner courtyards lined in marble and mosaic tiles, little squares with fountains everywhere – your eyes must be open in Rome; they will be rewarded over and over again.
The Trevi Fountain was packed with lunchers – Romans and tourists alike. The tourists were the ones shoving the Romans aside, turning their backs to the fountain and throwing fistfuls of Euros into the water (Italian financial woes solved – dredge the fountains). The fountain was grand and spectacular with Oceanus at its heart. I could’ve sat on its marble ledges all afternoon splashing in the cool water.
Kids on marathon outings such as these do one of two things: they whine incessantly from the get-go or they sail along, then BAM! All of a sudden they are weak from hunger and thirst, suffering from heatstroke, and not moving one more step. Our kids never whined but about a block away from the Trevi Fountain our little ones put the brakes on.
Diving into a cafe whose entire front facade was a dizzying selection of gelatos, we refueled in air conditioned comfort. My husband asked for a large beer and was served a frosty mug large enough to hold a legion of Roman soldiers. I swear my cone of pistachio gelato weighed 3 lbs. Our waiter was amazing and professed his love for Canadians – the Canadian women’s soccer team had been customers of his only a month ago. “Bye, Canada!” he called as we rolled our fat selves out of the cafe and off towards another tourist mecca – The Spanish Steps.
Maybe named after their proximity to the elegant Spanish Embassy at their foot, the towering steps are…a wack of steps. At the top is the lovely Trinita dei Monti church – dark, cool, with brilliant painted ceilings in every alcove. (To have such art all around you all the time – lucky Romans!!) The top of the steps rewarded us with an ochre & terracotta view towards Vatican City. The sun glinted off the gold dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in the hazy distance. The sun was descending the sky and we had to go. Damn you, Time. It was like being yanked from the arms of the love of your life…that you’d just met.
Taxi to Termini Station, so sad about having to leave Rome so soon. We only had one more day in Italy – how could that be? On the train to Civitavecchia, I ran through the day. We crossed streets like everyone else did and survived – maybe it was that we looked both ways? We were not stalked nor brought down by thieving hordes – gypsies were curiously absent even from the train station – perhaps they were on strike? Our feet hurt but our souls were fuller. Roma…Bella Roma…