After little sleep, I awoke to a hot summer morning and Rome waiting for me! Finally, a dream come true and a packed day of ruins, crowds, crazy traffic, charming Italians, history and modern comforts and a thrown coin with a singular wish. Join me for my amazing morning in Rome….
I feel like I waited my whole life for that day. And finally, despite a late night at the ship’s nightclub, I woke up early for an 8 AM pick up by our driver Francesco (yes, really, that’s his name of course) for our day trip to ROME! Thanks to the efforts of “Dad” Milt Swope, we had private drivers on all of our excursions throughout the Med, except Malta. Now I know that sounds expensive and privileged, but here’s the first best tip I can pass along. Compared to the prices of the ship’s excursion packages, private tours and drivers are so much cheaper it’s almost embarrassing. The same tour we took on that June day was more than $2,500 PER PERSON through the ship. We each paid $100 and bought Franceso’s lunch. Less than $600 total for four women when all was said and done. And with gas prices at roughly $9 a gallon, we couldn’t beat the price. That, plus the benefit of having a born and bred Italian man all to ourselves was the only way to go!
As we pulled away from the Solstice in our snazzy black Mercedes all I could think was “I’m finally, really in Italy!” I had looked forward to that day for most of my life, and the funny thing was my first impression of the Italian Coast that morning reminded me of the California coastline – ironic that the place of my birth would pop into my mind as my feet finally hit the soil of a country I have only dreamt about most of my life. That plus the graffiti mixed with my sheer lack of sleep and too much libation from the night before had me struggling to keep up with reality. The drive to Rome took about an hour, and as we approached our destination, California was long forgotten as the ruins of ancient Rome began to appear. I knew then, I had finally arrived to a place of my dreams.
Before long, we were an inch from entering The Eternal City, sitting at a stoplight. To my right was St Paul’s Outside the Walls, one of four of the most ancient Basilicas in Rome and the burial place of the Apostle Paul. After Paul’s execution in the mid-60’s he was buried outside the City Wall as Rome was not yet a Christian city and tombs were not allowed within the Walls. Over the next 1500 years the Basilica was built and expanded until it was nearly destroyed by fire in the early 1800’s and was subsequently rebuilt to its identical fashion. So there I sat, in a very modern Mercedes looking at the final resting place of the Apostle Paul…the disparities of the situation very evident and quite impactful.
To my left was the Pyramid of Cestius, which was actually incorporated into the Aurelian Walls just outside the City – signs of the ancient wall still exist next to the Pyramid. According to Francesco, the local lore goes that Gaius Cestius, an important magistrate in Rome, planned this for his final resting place as his wife had threatened that she would “dance on your tomb” when he died. Cestius had the last laugh, as his wife nor anyone else can dance on a pyramid. Local tourist flare perhaps, but we women enjoyed the creative response to an angry wife!
As we entered the City, I was suddenly regretting that I had called shotgun as the synchronized chaos that is Roman traffic became an up close and personal experience from the front seat of the Mercedes! Francesco explained there are really few accidents in the City, which amazed me. While there did not appear to be a system or organized traffic flow that this American could understand, it somehow seems to work. It works with near misses, close calls, loud horns – on narrow streets where one comes within a foot of scraping a parked car and in wide streets filled with cars merging in every direction while avoiding pedestrians at the same time. I would like to say I eventually relaxed, but I would be lying. Francesco, however, was cool as a cucumber.
Somehow, after making it alive through the equivalent of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride on the roads of Rome, Francesco stopped along a small street. We looked out to the incredible sight of the Coliseum, one of Rome’s most significant symbols, from a hill above this amazing sight. In a word, breathtaking – a word usually used to describe true beauty, but in this case the sheer size and scale of these ruins literally steals a breath. No picture can adequately seize that moment you first lay eyes on one of the greatest works of Roman architecture still standing today.
Next best tip to share: get your tickets early. Even then, the lines are crazy, but you will get through the gatekeepers faster than trying to buy them there. Third best tip: avoid the scam artists at the entrance. You will find them dressed like Gladiators and are charming Italian men who offer to take pictures of you with them. Lots of pictures. And be careful, a couple will even try and kiss you. Yet in the end, after they hand back YOUR camera they put out their hand and ask for 5 Euros each, “per favore.” As my new funny friend Evonne says to this day, we were a bunch of “dumbasses!” We paid them to take pictures of us with our own cameras! A lesson learned and one not repeated on the entire trip…
Once inside the Coliseum, you can spend hours taking the self-guided tour which includes sculptures and insights into ancient Roman architecture and the history of the construction and use of this immense amphitheater. But the real spectacle is when you walk out of the tunnels and see for the first time the center of the Coliseum. Massive. Awesome. Impressive. It’s from the interior that one understands the sheer scale of the Coliseum. It doesn’t take the imagination long to drift back to days of old when the Coliseum was fully intact and the games were alive. The bottom of the Coliseum is excavated, revealing the once-underground rooms for the animal and human sacrifices. You cannot take a quick walk around the Coliseum, not just because of its size, but because at every step there is a new discovery to be found. The intricate patterns of stone; small narrow halls leading to long forgotten seats; ancient “boxed seats” now blocked by wire fences; views through what used to be windows to the center of Rome – once considered the center of the world.
Despite the intense heat of the summer, we could have spent many more hours experiencing the overwhelming history and feel of such an ancient place. But Francesco was waiting and the cool air conditioning of the car was a welcome relief. The ancient City is small, and we were quickly pulled over to a curb where we were able to walk a few short steps to the remains of Circus Maximus, the site of chariot races and grand entertainment for the Republic. Sans the original obelisk marking the center of the stadium (it now sits in the center of another plaza), the Earth on which ancient chariots once battled is now a public park. The impression of the Circus is still apparent, its immense footprint telling the tale of the space that once held 150,000 spectators.
As we continued our tour by air-conditioned car (thankfully! The heat in June was overwhelming…) Francesco shared an overview of Rome’s storied history and the impact of religion on its development. Rome is a city built upon cities. During the days of the Republic, Pagan temples abounded. With the conversion to Christianity many Catholic churches were built over old temples and much of old Rome destroyed. Many Romans are not happy with some of the more “modern” changes. Case in point is the National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II, built to honor the first king of Italy. Coined “The Wedding Cake” or “The Typewriter” by locals, the building has been criticized by those who live there as it was built over some of the most ancient ruins in all of Rome. The building is massive – which seems to be a theme in Rome – and in front of it is a statue of a horse and rider, Victor Emmanuel II. Francesco explained that from our perch in the car we can’t understand just how big it is, but shared that before the two halves of the sculpture were molded together, a dinner for 24 dignitaries was held inside it, complete with dining tables, chairs, adornments, banquet tables and waiters.
Francesco dropped us off to walk through The Capitoline Hill, one of the seven hills of Rome and home of the Piazza del Campidoglio which features a statue of Marcus Aurelius at its center. The Piazza is a masterpiece of Michelangelo and houses the Capitoline Museums.
A walk around Capitoline Hill brought us to the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, which Francesco shared is called “The Million Stairs Church” and holds only weddings. Why? Because, as the locals say, if you’re not sure, you have a lot of time to change your mind! Just beside the Church are the remains of an insula, where four stories of ancient Roman homes and architecture are visible, illustrating how Rome is a city built on many iterations of itself. Our walk included visiting the site where Julius Caesar was killed, in front of temple ruins beneath a Cypress tree. Rome has something to offer at every turn.
Our next stop was the Pantheon, which is a true testament to the influence of early Roman architecture. Built in 27 BC, the Pantheon’s dome is the prototype of all domes throughout history and was dedicated to all Gods. Now a Church, the Pantheon is the final resting place to two Italian kings and one queen. It is a “don’t miss” if you visit Rome – a true original.
Unfortunately, the next original proved to be one of only a few disappointments of the entire trip to the Med. Because of the small, narrow, crowded streets Francesco dropped us off and pointed us in the general direction of the Trevi Fountain. I had yet another flashback to days of my youth, to packed crowds at Disneyland in California. The mob scene at the Fountain was a true madhouse! Working one’s way down the people-packed steps to throw my coin(s) was a lesson in abuse. An older woman behind me, frustrated and I am sure as overheated as we were, kept punching me in the lower back and screaming at me in a tongue I don’t know. I don’t think she understood I too had nowhere to go except to inch along toward the edge of the Fountain. The Trevi is as beautiful as it is famous and I count myself fortunate to have seen it with my own eyes, despite the nearly impossible sea of humanity. Fable has it that if you throw in one coin, you will return to Rome. Two coins and marriage is in your path. Three, a divorce is on the horizon. I don’t think it’s a stretch to guess that only one coin parted my hand as I threw it over my shoulder as tradition dictated. I hope the fable is true…I would like to return to the Trevi Fountain to find a much more pleasant experience than the one on my first visit.
On our way to lunch we passed the famous Spanish Steps at the heart of the shopping district. Rome’s equivalent to Rodeo Drive, Via Condotti, led the four of us to shout out the names of the shops, as if we would collectively miss them if we didn’t…Armani!, Cartier!, Hermes!, Gucci! We were more than impressed. We’re women after all!
Hot, tired and famished we asked Francesco to take us to a local’s restaurant – somewhere off the beaten tourist path. L’Osteria dei Pontefici, or the Restaurant of the Popes, was an oasis! Bathed in red with pictures of the Popes along the wall and monks seated at nearby tables, we were treated like locals by brothers Leo and Fabio. They are part of the family who has owned this restaurant since the 50’s. We were told that “mama” is still found in the kitchen quite often making Tiramisu. Francesco invited us to eat the Italian way, which means letting Leo and Fabio just bring us their best and that day is was a feast of appetizers including eggplant, carrots, zucchini, salmon, prosciutto, cantaloupe, watermelon and Bruschetta to die for. My entre of traditional spaghetti and meatballs was the perfect Italian lunch, I was told. Pizza is for dinner!
The day was only half over, and I was overwhelmed…I always knew I would love Rome!
Join me next week for my afternoon in Rome as we visited the smallest and wealthiest country in the world…Vatican City.