In Rome, the Best Outshines the Rest

Yesterday in the late afternoon, while I was running laps around the Circus Maximus, I reflected on how the four of us started the day by getting to the Vatican at sunrise and scurrying behind nuns to be among the first in St. Peter’s and gaze uninterrupted at Michaelangelo’s Pieta. I realized that we’ve experienced much of the best — and some of the worst — that Rome has to offer in just three full days.

If you arrive at St. Peter's Square at sunrise, you're rewarded with a view of this ...

... and this.

I know, it’s incredible to be able to say not only that we started the day with the Pieta, but also, “I was running laps around the Circus Maximus.” The circus is a half-mile oval track in a dirt and grassy area where Julius Caesar and subsequent emperors through the 4th century used to come down from their palaces on the adjacent Palatine Hill and join tens of thousands of spectators to watch chariot races. Only a few remnants of the starting gates remain, but it’s easy to imagine the thundering hooves and wheels picking up speed on the straight-aways and the brutish drivers who struggled to keep their balance in the bumpy carts, sometimes crashing and dying on the curves.

That’s one of the best things about being here in Rome: I really can picture the ancient people who no longer seem so ancient and better understand how they went about their lives.

On our first day, we explored the remnants on Palatine Hill, in between the Forum and Circus Maximus, to find clues about the everyday lives of ancient Romans.

But Rome does not reward the visitor easily. Rome Fatigue sets in within 24 hours, the symptoms being a throbbing head, aching feet and a defensive stance toward others. My elbows stick out to navigate crowds while my hand grips my bag to prevent theft. I cram info from guidebooks and try to interpret it for Colly and Kyle, whose eyes glaze over after a couple of hours — their heads are spinning from learning about the Renaissance 500 years ago and the Republic 1500 years before that (which makes Paul Revere’s house that we visited in Boston a year ago seem virtually modern). At least we are blessed with beautiful weather; I definitely would not want to visit during the worst of the summer’s heat and crowds.

The antidote to the fatigue is good food, lodging and company, and we’ve been blessed with all three. We’re sharing the week with Morgan’s parents, and it’s delightful to spend time with them here. We combined resources to rent a top-floor apartment with a rooftop patio overlooking the Coliseum, which is an ideal place to unwind and contemplate the tired but true saying, “In Rome, the past is always present.”

Morgan on the rooftop of our apartment with the Coliseum in the background.

For the kids, one of the best things about Rome was being with their grandparents!

I decided to make a list for would-be Rome travelers of some of the things that make Rome maddening, so that you’re forewarned, and other things that make it completely worthwhile:

  • Rome Airport’s baggage claim: a perfect example of the city’s groaning inefficiency. Baggage from at least 10 different flights funnel onto each dirty, creaky carousel, and some of the bags have been popped open (by thieves? by customs? who knows) and spill clothes. Hordes of stressed travelers huddle around, blocking access or view of the carousel, so grabbing a piece off becomes a contact sport. Several separate companies handle the airport’s baggage operation, and as we waited an hour before glimpsing our packs, I spun theories on the rivalries, deals and kickbacks that must have developed the system and prevent it from streamlining.
  • Queues and entrances to major sites: by 10 a.m., the lines to get in to see anything worthwhile stretch for blocks. Each place has multiple lines to multiple entrances, all of them tangled. You have to walk around, squeeze through clusters of tour groups and decipher clues from surrounding conversations to know if you’re standing in the right line because helpful signs in Rome are as scarce as public bathrooms.

    Big crowds and high prices are unavoidable around hot spots like Trevi Fountain.

  • Price gouging near the tourist sites: Restaurants lure you in with delicious-looking panini that costs only 4 euros (about $5.40 US) for a big-sized sandwich, but they don’t list the price for drinks. When the bill comes, you discover that a skinny 10-ounce can of soda also costs 4 euros each and a small gelato costs 6 euros. We spent 56 euros ($75) on a simple lunch of two paninis, one cheese pizza and one salad because $26 went to buy three Diet Cokes and two Fantas. Thank goodness we skipped dessert.
  • Traffic and street crossings: Most intersections go something like this: “Kids, hold my hands, get ready, now run! No, wait, aghhh — Jesus! Okay, now!”

And here’s why everyone should try to visit Rome at least once in their lifetime:

  • St. Peter’s Basilica: Nothing prepared us for the size, scale and grandeur of The World’s Biggest Church. We got there when it opened at 7 a.m. to view it unhurried and uncrowded (a few hours later, lines stretched longer than a football field). It’s not just the Pieta that makes it worth a pilgrimage; it’s the frescoes, the palatial marble mosaic floors, the preserved 300-year-old Pope’s remains in view, the nearly 2000-year-old bronze statue of St. Peter whose toe has been rubbed off by a millenium of faithful kisses, the light and color and gold … it’s stunning.

    St. Peter's Basilica covers six acres and stretches two football fields from one end to the other.

    Michelangelo designed the dome when he was 71; others finished it after he died in 1564. It's 430 feet high. Each of those letters on the gold ribbon, which quote Jesus talking to St. Peter in the Bible, are 7 feet tall.

    Early-morning services were going on, reminding us we’re in a working church, not a museum. Our progressive Presbyterian kids, who are used to sitting cross-legged around a female pastor who plays guitar and sings folk tunes, watched wide-eyed as priests, nuns and altar boys genuflected and mumbled in Latin. Then we hustled out, walked about a half mile to the Vatican’s other side, bypassed lines already a quarter-mile long and entered at 8:30 a.m. with our pre-booked tickets. When in Rome, get up and go early.

  • The Raphael Rooms and Sistine Chapel: I feel lame even attempting to describe their magnificence; all I can say is the experience brings learning to life and manages to condense the history of humankind into a few glorious rooms of frescoes.

    Our view of Raphael's School of Athens. That's Plato and Aristotle in the middle, and Plato (on the left) is painted with da Vinci's face. After the Pope let Raphael get a sneek peak at the Sistine Chapel, Raphael returned to the already-finished painting and added that brooding figure sitting on the steps with orange pants, which is Michelangelo as Heraclitus, aka "The Weeping Philosopher."

    We figured out who’s who in the School of Athens painting, speculated on the relationship between Raphael and Michelangelo, craned our necks up at the chapel’s panels, and were awestruck by the fearsome Last Judgment wall (which Michelangelo painted 23 years after the ceiling and which captures his growing disillusionment with the church and the Counter-Reformation). Kyle really admired the way Michelangelo painted his chief critic heading toward Hell naked and with a serpent wrapped around him, the snake’s head strategically positioned over private parts.

  • The Vatican Museum before the Raphael Rooms and Sistine Chapel: I approached this unbelievably large warehouse of art with the wrongheaded attitude that we had to “get through it” to get to Raphael and Michelangelo. Boy am I glad we slowed down, as it was a fabulous collection that captured so much of what Colly has studied in her sixth-grade Ancient History book over the past six months. We saw writing tablets circa 2500BC that were a hallmark of the Sumerians’ civilization, Egyptian coffins and mummies, and Greek and Roman sculpture that inspired the Renaissance greats.

    It's a special day when you get to say, "No climbing on the sarcophagus, kids."

  • The Arch of Titus: Out of all the ancient ruins we’ve toured (which is a lot), this one arch — the oldest extant one in Rome, built in AD81 — held my attention perhaps more than any others. Its reliefs honor a terrible moment in history: when Titus led the Roman army to Jerusalem in the year 70 to put down the Jewish Revolt, sack their riches and sacred objects, and destroy their great temple (the Western Wall, aka Wailing Wall, is what remains). The Romans then used the stolen money and slave labor to build more of their great city.

    A detail from the Arch of Titus in the Forum. It was built one year after the Coliseum and is about 50 feet high.

    Here I am trying to explain it to Kyle. He liked how some of the details looked like architectural details on Piedmont homes.

    It’s fascinating to see the aesthetic details of the arch — for example, an S-shaped corbel with decorative patterns that reminds me of the carved corbels of our own house — and to feel drawn to the Romans who made it, but on the other hand be appalled by the brutality and injustice of their empire. Likewise, the Coliseum stirred in me both admiration for their engineering feats and disgust for their bloody entertainment.

    You might say the Coliseum is bloody brilliant.

  • Authentic, slow-cooked regional cuisine: Since we don’t speak Italian and we’re in a tourist-oriented spot, it took some work to find a special, locals’-favorite restaurant, but we did. I highly recommend Il Bocconcino, right around the corner from our apartment on Via Ostilia, for anyone looking for a meal near the Coliseum.

I think I’ll stop before I inflict Rome Fatigue on any readers patient enough to stick this far. We leave Rome and take a train for Venice on Monday. Here’s a slide show of Morgan’s Rome photos (if you play it, I encourage you to click the icon on the bottom right corner of the flickr screen to enlarge to full screen view). Colly’s photos follow below.

Colly took her own photos and did her own slide show! Be sure to enlarge it to full screen, then click the “show info” option in top right corner to see her captions. Ciao for now!

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9 Comments

  1. Cheryl, April 11, 2010:

    I can’t believe an entire week has gone by since I’ve seen you guys and you’ve already seen a month’s worth of amazing sites! Glad you survived Rome, it looks like your weather was perfect…I love the photo streams..Colly is really starting to take some fantastic shots! Have fun in Venice!

  2. kelly, April 12, 2010:

    Wonderful, rich, and balanced reporting, as always. I had to remind myself you were describing Rome because the street-crossing and other frustrations describe our day in Hanoi today precisely! Be well and we’ll see you on yet an entirely different continent soon!

  3. Martha Howard, April 12, 2010:

    How wonderful, beautiful, … I can’t think of words. The art and architecture…the history…aaaaahhhhh I want to be with you there!! Morgan (and Colly, the budding photog!), your pics are striking. Your eye is sooooo good. Sorry to hear about all the tooooo-rists there, making your time a little difficult. And the prices, ugg. But I hope you have a great rest of your stay. Please give George and Ann all our love and best wishes.

    : ) Martha

  4. Jeff, April 15, 2010:

    Great write-up of Rome. My family and I spent a week in Rome over last Christmas.
    Compared to Christmas holiday time, I see more tourists in your pictures, e.g. there were fewer than 10-15 of us at Trevi Fountain.
    The Colosseum certainly is beaming! Great family adventures!
    Ciao, -Jeff

  5. Kia, April 15, 2010:

    OK…..so I know Rome. And if there is one thing you want to do/experience in Rome (aside from the obvious sites), it is a rooftop. You are living with your own rooftop – that is wonderful! Bill and I have tried many rooftop restaurants and bars…..what a great thing to have your own. Enjoy every minute in that wonderful city (ignore the bad).

  6. Sarah, April 17, 2010:

    More wonderful adventures and I love following your travels. I especially loved Collie’s album – she’s an emerging photographer! Keep posting!

  7. Lars Lavender, April 17, 2010:

    Hi Gang…..One word–AWESOME!!!! It’s with anticipated delight that I finally find time to catch up with the Soujounering Smith Clan. Then devouring your written words and beautiful(stunning) photos of the trip, well, AWESOME!!!
    Colly, your photographic eye and blogs are astute! What a remarkable time for all of you guys. Glad to read all are now healthy.

  8. James Pena, May 2, 2010:

    We are visiting Rome for a week in early June 2010. Thank you so much for writing and sharing your wonderful experience. We are now better informed.

  9. Gabriella, May 31, 2010:

    I live in Rome and chanced upon your interesting blog post. When I started reading your “warnings” I was scared at what you might have experienced but “luckily” those are just normal things that us Romans have to put up with too… By the way, there are no frescos in St Peter’s Basilica: all the paintings are in fact mosaics! Amazing, right?

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