Holidays and Travel: Rome 2002

I had never been to Italy. Despite a lifelong interest in all things Roman, as well as a passing regard for Marco Polo, Garibaldi’s Redshirts, and a fascination with the nefarious exploits of Brigate Rosse during the 1970’s, I had never set foot on the land that also produced the wines I loved so much; Barolo, Barbera D’Asti, and Chianti.

Julie was well aware of my love of Roman History, and my somewhat morbid obsession with the arenas, and the gladiatorial combats fought within them. With my fiftieth birthday coming up, in March 2002, she arranged a ‘short break’ holiday to Rome, as her gift to me. It remains one of the best gifts that I have ever received, and this is the tale of our trip to the Eternal City.

Even the chosen hotel was to be a delight. The Art Deco Hotel, close to the Central Station, so also close to many of the best sights to be seen. Small and friendly, liberally scattered with Art Deco features, both old and new, with a buffet breakfast, served in the bar. We needed no more, as the short trip was all about getting out, and seeing the place, not relaxing in the hotel. The weather was delightful, considering the time of year. Warm and sunny, with pleasant evenings for strolling too. We had a good guide book, and had done some research before leaving England. Having been fortunate enough to have visited many places before this, I was prepared for the possibility that it would not be all that I had so eagerly anticipated. I was more than pleasantly surprised, when it turned out to be in excess of all expectations, and became one of the best places I had ever seen, and one of the highlights of my life, up to that point.

The first destination had to be The Colosseum. I had seen representations of it in so many films, as well as the real thing on travel shows, and films like ‘Roman Holiday’. I had read so many books about it, I felt I already knew the place inside out, and I couldn’t wait to actually stand inside it. Walking there from the hotel, I could feel my pace quickening as we got nearer, finally reaching a spot where we could see it from an elevated position, across the road. The feeling that swept over me was one of awe. In an age where the word ‘awesome’ has become almost meaningless, this place took me back to the real meaning of the word. How it must have looked to a simple Roman, when it could still take my breath away, over 1900 years since it opened. Once inside, I was like a delighted child, almost scampering over and around the parts still accessible to visitors. I took countless photos, and could barely contain myself. Simply one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. I could have spent all four days there. Even typing this now, I can recall that feeling, of seeing something so much a part of history, so well-known, yet still mysterious. I could imagine those toiling in the warren of tunnels and rooms beneath the floor, preparing animals for combat, or dragging the dead from the sand. This was a culture and a time almost incomprehensible to us, yet it laid the foundations of modern Europe.

Until I was actually standing there, I had been unaware how close the Forum was to the Colosseum. The whole area we know so well from films and books, is actually all interwoven, and leads off of a long avenue, that must have appeared truly magnificent, in the heyday of the empire. It is hard to make progress, constantly turning to gaze, and marvel at, the remains of buildings and statues once passed by Trajan, Caligula, Nero, and all those other historical figures. I could hardly take it all in, this veritable feast for the eyes. Not far off, the remains of the Emperor’s Palace, and the grassy outline of the once magnificent Circus Maximus. What a morning, a time to treasure, and to look back on always. Almost by accident, we discovered Trajan’s Column, as we stopped for a coffee, during an unexpected shower. This has been restored, and the carved reliefs, celebrating the victories in Dacia (Romania), are a sight to see; so clear, and easy to interpret.

The next day, we decided to get a tour bus, one that stopped off and picked up, so we could choose to go a little further afield, and have a look at The Vatican, on the other side of the River Tiber. On the way to the bus,we noticed a small cemetery, behind some vendors’ stands. Inside and outside this unprepossessing building, were the gravestones of soldiers and gladiators, some dating from dates B.C. They were lined up along the walls, some with translations of the inscriptions. This small diversion was in some ways, one of the most impressive parts of the whole trip, and I found this small area incredibly moving. The bus took us off to St Peter’s Basilica, and the Sistine Chapel, both sites we considered essential to visit, during the short stay. I was unprepared for the sheer size of St Peter’s. It is simply enormous. I had expected something like St Paul’s, in London, but I believe that you could fit that cathedral inside the one in Rome, with plenty of room to spare. This high temple of Catholicism is so much larger than it seems on TV, or in pictures, little wonder it staggered the 16th century mind. Inside, the wonders continue, including statues as big as houses, carved from marble, and the overall effect of the place is to leave you slack-jawed and speechless. I actually became quite uncomfortable, at the contrast with this display of wealth and majesty, against the poverty in so many places where Catholicism is the main religion and power.

We later joined a long queue to enter the Sistine Chapel, part of the official residence of The Pope, The Apostolic Palace. This long line snaked a circuitous route around the building, passing many beggars, mostly elderly women, who lay in the street, as hundreds of clergymen and nuns passed by, oblivious to their presence. The crowds inside the chapel are significant, and it is not a place for anyone suffering from claustrophobia. The paintings on the ceiling are, once again, so much more powerful that you could ever imagine, from seeing them anywhere else. The sheer scale, and the vibrant colours, it is almost too much splendour. You also have to keep moving, so there is no time to linger on any particular feature. Despite the short time allowed, and the uncomfortable crush that has to be endured, I am very glad to have seen this. We later took in the Spanish Steps, eating in a marvellous restaurant near there that same evening. I threw coins into the Trvei Fountain, and managed to get a photo of Julie doing the same, with all three coins still in the air.

Rome is a place that has almost too much to see. The imposing Castel Sant Angelo, and the modern monument to King Victoria Emmanuel ll, The Arch of Constantine, The Pantheon, in Greek style, and the incredible Santa Maria Maggiore, the list just goes on and on. Outside of the tourist trail, we did not really encounter much of Italian life, as time was too short. We did eat some marvellous meals, in some of the most atmospheric restaurants I have ever visited. My fiftieth birthday was celebrated in the elegant Grappollo D’oro restaurant, near our hotel, and it was excellent. Julie almost destroyed her poor feet, as walking in the heat gave her terrible blisters, but she never complained. There was a lot we never got to see, as time and distance made it impossible. The famous catacombs, much of the other side of the river, the artistic district, and many other sights outside the limits of the city, all had to be neglected. In the short time available, we had a marvellous trip, and almost twelve years later, it feels as if I was there yesterday.

I don’t know if I will ever go back, but I doubt it. I do urge you to see it though, if you have never been. I cannot imagine anyone being disappointed, by this most magnificent of cities.

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7 thoughts on “Holidays and Travel: Rome 2002

  1. “In an age where the word ‘awesome’ has become almost meaningless…” Pete, I agree wholeheartedly. The diluting of significant words is one of my linguistic pet peeves.
    —ITALY—
    I visited Rome in 1970. I was 16 years old, and it was one of four stops on our whirlwind tour of a handful of European cities (Frankfurt am Main, Athens, Rome, Paris). We visited the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and Vatican City (including St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and the Vatican Museums). It was at the Vatican that I discovered the statue, “Laocoön and His Sons,” which I immediately adopted as my favorite (my apologies to the “Discus Thrower” [“Discobolus”], the “Winged Victory of Samothrace,” and the “Venus de Milo”). Of course, I have yet to behold Michelangelo’s “David,” so my top pick may not be set in stone, so to speak. Speaking of Michelangelo, his Sistine Chapel paintings were a bit dull at the time. The 10-year restoration that brightened the colors began later (1984). Of course, the vault was still very impressive. The Pantheon was quite impressive as well (which rhymes with Raphael, whose tomb is located inside). My biggest regret is that we did not visit the Roman Forum (my father was ill), though I got a fleeting glimpse of it due to its proximity to the Colosseum.
    A few years later, during my “junior year abroad” program in Nice, I returned to Italy by train and visited Napoli (specifically, the amazing Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli), la Solfatara (where the last visitor of the day is a rotten egg), Mount Vesuvius (I wore out a pair of boots by walking its entire circumference a few hundred feet below the rim), Herculaneum (at whose gate I spent a chilly night in the rental car), and Pompeii (where I heaved on the paving stones after a lunch that didn’t agree with me). I also took a hydrofoil to Capri, and toured the island by taxi (alas, Sofia Loren was not to be found, and Clark Gable, that old mustang wrangler, had long since bitten the dust).
    Additionally, during those same university days in Nice, I took a train to Zermatt, Switzerland by way of Milan, the Lago Maggiore, and the Italian Alps. That was a truly breathtaking trip!
    But returning for a moment to my train trip from Nice to Naples, I’ll never forget the splendid coastal scenery. But, oddly, what stands out the most in my mind is a somewhat amusing discovery that I made upon visiting the toilet. When I lifted up the lid, I was greeted not by a toilet bowl, but rather by a rapid succession of railroad ties that gave me just a touch of vertigo. I guess some things are best left behind….
    If I ever return to Italy, my destinations of choice will be Florence, Turin, and Venice. And since the main character in my book, “Pope on the Dole,” hails from Burano, I’ll have to schedule a stop there as well.

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    1. Thanks David, that was an interesting read, almost a post in itself! I think the sort of whistle-stop tours you recall were not unusual years ago, especially for Americans on a time schedule. However, you certainly managed to see a lot, and I am envious of Pompeii.

      http://www.amazon.co.uk/Pope-Dole-Mr-David-Miller/dp/1490324593/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1385114533&sr=8-1&keywords=pope+on+the+dole

      I have added a link to your book, in case other readers may wish to check it out.
      Regards from England, Pete.

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  2. I don’t enjoy nor can I afford travel but do enjoy travel by reading about other places or watching travel series on tv. I truly enjoyed this post on your 50th birthday in Rome. I’m glad you got to see the Coliseum and enjoyed it from your viewpoint.

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  3. What a lovely birthday present! And a great piece Pete about a great city. I have only been there briefly whilst waiting for a train connection to Syracuse a very long time ago. I’ve often thought of going back to see the sights (only managed the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps) but I’m not sure that I’d like the crowds now and the increased numbers if beggars and scammers. I’m not in the least bothered about the Vatican – I find the wealth of the churches at odds with their beliefs – though I would love to see the Colosseum and other locations that appeared in my Latin text books!
    Jude xx

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