Organized tours can have a role in one’s traveling life. They make efficient use of limited time, can give a quick overview of a new area and can take us to places we might not otherwise visited. A good guide can teach us and make it interesting to learn.
But if one has the time, just wandering with an open mind is often more fun and can lead to unexpected delights.
In a past blog, I mentioned a milkshake, an incident that grows richer and better in memory each year that passes. My 1967 trip to Rome was a milkshake. Hitchhiking around Europe for six weeks, I stayed in the youth hostel at the former Olympic Games site. Each morning, two young ladies from Canada and I had breakfast on a poolside terrace while we watched divers practice. We went our separate ways during the day – I was too short of time and funds to consider others’ interests – but came together again in the evening. One night, we went to the Baths of Caracalla to see Aida. The opera’s “triumphal march” had live elephants, camels and a chariot pulled by four white horses.
During the few days I was there, I wandered the streets trying to find examples of Michelangelo’s art. At the Vatican, I saw the Sistine Chapel and walked right up to the Pieta (before it was protected by a glass shield). I was so moved, I went back the next day, but a service was going on. It was crowded and the Pieta was behind curtains. Just as I was about to try to sneak behind the curtains, they were opened and Pope Paul the VI was carried out on a chair on the shoulders of Swiss Guards.
One day, I wandered into an old wooden shed on what I believe was the former grounds of the Circus Maximus. Inside, a sculptor was using power tools to carve a piece of marble. He told me in his limited English (better than my non-existent Italian) that he was making a copy of a Roman statue to give to Iran as a gift. I contemplated what Michelangelo could have done with power tools.
My next trip was in 2006 when Alie and I spent just two nights and one day in Rome as part of a guided tour. We had guided tours including one in the Vatican and had a good walk through the Coliseum. I’m sure I learned more and saw more in a short time. But the Vatican was crowded, one had to stand far from the Pieta, and my chief memory is the body of John Paul III in his glass coffin. I did enjoy going into the Coliseum and having dinner near the Castle Gondolfo. But it was no milkshake. It was too quick, too crowded and too organized.
Ideally, I would go back for at least a week just to wander the streets some more. But Alie has a most unusual allergy/sensitivity: olive oil. It is too much to ask her to spend a whole week living on bread and water.
So we went back for just three days.
Alie, her sister Michelle and I are on the road again. As our Aer Lingus flight to Ireland last year was the most uncomfortable ever, our USAir flight to Rome this year seemed spacious by comparison. Holland America’s driver was right outside customs, and in all, the trip went very well. Nonetheless, we were exhausted – sleep in coach is just about impossible at our age.
We went out for a passable lunch in a nearby bistro and then retired for an afternoon nap. Our hotel was surrounded by police, and we felt very secure. It was the site of the Interpol 81st General Assembly.
I took a walk to St. Peter’s in the late afternoon. Rome is a large city. Indeed, from the air one could see the many very modern suburban areas. And like New York, there are very many very young, very thin, very fashionable people. The girls’ long legs are sheathed in skin tight pants; the men have slim cut suits. As it is winter, everyone is in black or dark colors.
Dinner was another simple affair. Although the menu called it “white pizza,” mine was a strange dish: it had a pizza crust, tomato sauce and mushrooms but there was no cheese. Both the pizza and my afternoon soup had no salt and very little spicing. But Michelle’s calzone covered an entire dinner plate and was delicious. Alie, coping with her allergy to olive oil, opted for some potato and rice based appetizers, and they were also flavorful and good.
Hotel Visconti Palace is very nice. We slept very well. We started the next day with a walk along the Tiber River to a spot near St. Peter’s where we chose to take an “open bus” which would allow us to get on and off around the city for the next two days at a fixed price. Vendors near the Castel Sant Angelo sold a variety of items, but a merry-go-round was not operating in the morning.
My 1967 memory of Italian drivers was that traffic regulations were just “suggestions.” They drove fast and aggressively. It has not improved. Parking is at a premium. Smart Cars here are indeed smart. And parking in crosswalks is common. Indeed, what we regard as crosswalks they seem to think of as crosshairs to better aim at pedestrians. Cobblestoned streets are not wheelchair friendly. There are few cuts in the sidewalks at intersections. Michelle was driving, however, the only time we actually ran Alie off a curb.
But we survived,the weather was sunny, cool and crisp, and we had a good time. Our first stop was at the Trevi Fountain. Alie and Michelle tossed in the wishing coins. Ray, who has his own superstitions, gave one to a beggar. Tourists all, next stop was the Spanish Steps, a tourist destination since 1720. Built in 1760, the nearby Café Greco hosted Keats, Byron, Goethe, Liszt and Wagner – and now us. A couple from Sweden, who spoke better English than many Americans, agreed to take our picture.
We ascended on a Metro elevator to the top of the steps from which we could then walk to Barberini Plaza to see the Triton Fountain. We got back on the bus for the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, the seat of many Popes prior to the construction of St. Peter’s. A fifth century mosaic covers the ceiling near the main altar. But I found it most interesting to watch men cleaning centuries of filth off a chapel’s paintings.
We then took the bus to see the Michelle’s favorite monument, the Monument to Victor Emanuel, first king of unified Italy. We had planned to walk through the ancient Roman Forum, but it was getting too late in the day, so we moved on to Plaza Navona and the Pantheon, two other prime tourist spots.
These all are prime tourist spots because they are so interesting. The Pantheon is the greatest example of late Roman Architectures, and the Plaza Navona has interesting architecture, sculpture, shops and restaurants. Furthermore, it is November, so the crowds have not been bad. One could get right up to the Trevi Fountain. In Plaza Navona, it was possible to photograph Bernini’s masterpiece sculpture without someone in the way. It celebrates what were then regarded as the world’s four greatest rivers: the Nile, the Ganges, the Danube and the Plate (?) – I am amazed to think of carving such huge marble figures with hand tools!
Stopping to eat on the outdoor patio of nearby Zim Ciro, what I assumed to be just another tourist trap, we lingered over a delicious meal, with wine, coffee and a great almond and chocolate torte. Such a surprise is the reward one occasionally gets for spontaneous decisions.
Our final full day was not quite as successful. When we got on the “open bus,” we assumed they were all operated by the same company. There are at least four companies, and we would not recommend the Green Line. The buses are older, the equipment not as nice, and it took us two hours to cover the same distance we should have covered in one – and it cost five Euros more per person! As a result, when we finally got to the Forum, we could not face another long line to get tickets. From appearances, I would suggest the Roma Christiana line.
Not wanting to wait yet again, we walked to the Circus Maximus, a good decision as it allowed us to get a better view of current excavations, and we beat the next Green Line bus. We then walked to see the Boca della Verita. If you saw the movie Roman Holiday, Gregory Peck shocks Audrey Hepburn when the mouth of the stone lion “closes” on his hand, an indicator of a prevaricator. We agreed it was fortunate the line was too long for us to wait for the lion to do further damage to Alie’s hand.
We then crossed the street to see the temples of the Forum Boarium, the best preserved examples from the Roman Republic. Just up a flight of steps was the Ponte Palatino across the Tiber River from which we could see the “Ponte Rotto,” or broken bridge, a section of bridge built in the second section B.C. Most Roman Ruins were stripped of their marble by later builders, but perhaps because it is in the river, Ponte Rotto still has much of its marble veneer and carvings.
We continued across the bridge and found a small local café for a late lunch. It was a very pleasant place with a stereotypical waiter. Michelle had “fruit of the forest” gelato, the best ever, for dessert.
Having had enough of buses, we caught a cab to the Catacombe San Callistro, the largest of Rome’s sixty catacombs. It was closed in the fourth century under the Christian Emperor Constantine, looted by barbarians in the ninth century and lost until the nineteenth century. Brother Abbott (?) gave us an interesting tour. Although it was still only late afternoon, we called for another cab to take us to the hotel for a pre-prandial beverage.
On our final morning before heading to the ship, we took a walk to St. Peter’s. A Saturday, traffic was remarkably light, but the line to enter the basilica was still too long. We had hoped to have a more casual visit than in 2006, but evidently that era is long gone. Nonetheless, we enjoyed walking around the plaza. Our route back to our hotel took us again past the Castel Sant Angelo, which we discovered was not a castle, but Emperor Hadrian’s (of England’s Hadrian’s Wall) mausoleum. Started in 130 or perhaps even earlier according to some evidence, it was finished in A.D. 139, a year after the emperor’s death. It is built on the site of an ancient Roman village, Vaticum, the derivative of the modern name for the Pope’s residence.
We were sorry we did not get to the Forum, but felt our wanderings on the streets, the cafes and the tourist sites we did see were truly a wonderful Roman experience in a short time. Alie practiced her newly acquired Italian on the waiters, and while she may have lost weight, she found some non-olive oil food and did not starve.