Rome: a Week in the Capital of the Ancient World

My journey to Rome was not planned into my trip. As time wore down during stay on the Cote D’Azur I began thinking over my original plans. It was my original intention to take the train to Genoa and stay for a few days before heading north to Milan and then on to Switzerland. As I did research on these cities, however, I found that they were going to be very expensive and I was consistently going over budget. I also felt zero enthusiasm when I thought about my destinations. I also felt strongly that I could not, in good conscience, travel through Italy with visiting Rome. The morning of my departure I decided to take the train across the Italian border and find out how much a ticket to Rome would cost.

The first town across the Italian border in the Mediterranean is called Ventimiglia. I walked into a train station that was baking hot from the sun and looked like an outpost from the American Old West. After navigating, in my extremely limited Italian, the ticket machine, I soon discovered that the ticket to Rome would cost fifty euro. The train would leave in six hours for Genoa and then after a two hour lay over I would arrive in Rome at about five o’clock in the morning. I paid the money, waited as the machine printed out the tickets and then left the train station with six hours to kill.

Even though I was just one town across the French border, I was excited to be in Italy. I come from mixed ancestry, but since my father is 100 % Italian, I have always identified myself most with Italy. I was excited to see the native land of half of my ancestors and the birthplace of the modern world. Ventimiglia looked like a nice town. The town is surrounded by high hills that lead to the sea. Since Ventimiglia would be the last town I would be visiting on the Mediterranean I decided to head straight for the beach.

The sun shone down brightly and it was a hot day, especially with the full pack on my back. Still, I managed to lumber down to the beach. Once I made it to the shore I called my girlfriend to let her know where I would be for the next day or so. I was less than a mile from the French border and it was interesting to see my cell phone flash back and forth between Italian and French networks. The beach was sandy with large boulders. It was by and large deserted with no lifeguards and view visitors. I didn’t care. I stripped down to my suit and dove head-first into the water and reveled in the warmth of the Mediterranean one last time. I was excited by the fact I was completely improvising my trip. I did not know how long I would be spending in Rome, where I would be staying or where I would head afterward. I didn’t care. I was having fun.

After hanging out on the beach for a few hours, eating some fantastic home made Italian ice and reading for a few hours at the train station, I found myself on a train pulling out for Genoa. It was dusk and at every stop the train would linger long enough for many of the passengers to step outside and smoke cigarettes. I had very little cash on me but I managed to buy a sandwich from the lady with the snack trolley for a few euro. We arrived at the Genoa train station in the middle of the night. I wandered around the station, which was filled with drunks and the mentally ill. I stepped out into the night to have a look at Genoa. I didn’t see much except for a few white apartment buildings. The air was redolent with the smells of a port city-fish, salt water and garbage. That was all I could discern of Genoa before I was back on another train heading for Rome.

The night was an inky black and I could make out nothing of the countryside passing by my window so I got some sleep. The compartment was rather cramped but I had it all to my self so I stretched out as much as I could to get some sleep. After a few hours the sun began to rise. It was early morning when I arrived in Rome. Again, I was completely winging this so I had no idea where I would be staying. I knew the address of the YHA building in Rome and after a few rambling subway and bus rides I arrived on their front door. I had to wait several hours for a room but there would be one available for two days, after that I needed to make other arrangements. That was fine with me, I just wanted to get in and get some sleep.

I stayed in Rome for eight days at the beginning of July 2005. I knew this much about the city when I got there. Rome was once the capital on the ancient world, commanding the land from Persia through North Africa in the South and from Great Britain across northern Europe into Germany and some of modern Eastern Europe. I read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as a teenager (1000 pages-a gift from my grandfather). I knew that the empire fell due, more or less, to its own prosperity. Peace time dulled the discipline of the formerly war like Romans and centuries of Empire crippled the sense of civic propriety which had been the pride of the old republic. Rome decayed for many centuries from corruption and neglect until the ever hostile nations of the north and east encroached on Roman territory and finally swept in and burnt the proud city.

I was also aware that Rome remained the heart and capital of the Italian people in principle until the unification movement made it a fact during the 19th century. Rome was the home of the Roman Catholic Church, the Vatican, which actually exists as the world’s smallest sovereign nation with the pope as head of state thanks to an agreement between the church and Mussolini in 1929. I knew the major monuments that remained, places that I had to see: the Forum, the Vatican, Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, the Colosseum, the arch of Constantine. I also knew that in Rome some of the best cuisine, fashion and nightlife awaited me. The ancient capital is alive and well indeed, blending the timeless with contemporary and chic.

My first day in Rome I wandered the city with my jaw hanging wide open. It was early Sunday morning and church bells tolled constantly in this, the mother of all catholic cities. Everywhere, it seemed, the city was painted in pastel colors. The buildings are predominantly pale yellow, pink or off white. Although the architecture in the city literally spans millennia, the main style seems to be from the Renaissance. The climate is very hot and dry with an unbroken bright blue sky overhead as you would expect in the desert. Similarly the plants are all short narrow pines and shrubs. Contrasting the desert climate, however, are the fountains. Rome has more artesian fountains than any place on earth. It seems around every corner there is a lion’s head with natural, fresh and cold water flowing out of its mouth. I know that I saved many euros in Rome just filling my water bottle up with the delicious and free spring water. Most of the streets were cobble stone worn shiny from constant use. Although I would divide my stay in Rome into many different aspects of the city to explore, everywhere I went I felt like I was immersed in Rome. The city is a neverending deluge of sensation.

On my first day I wandered into St. Peter’s Square just as Pope Benedict was finished giving a morning mass. The square was filled with thousands of people. The enormous basilica, the square with its arcades and obelisk in the center were all very familiar to me from the proceedings of only a few months earlier when Pope John Paul II died and Pope Benedict XVI was elected. I had no idea then, when I watched those events unfold in New Jersey, that I would, in a matter of months, stand in that square. There were so many people drawn together by a common faith. The throng was a little scary at first but it took only a moment to see that these people were so happy to be worshipping together in Rome. There were many flags in the crowd from countries in Europe, Africa, Latin America and elsewhere in the world. Some people wore the garb of priests, nuns and monks. I was so impressed by what I saw that I called my catholic father in New York just to tell him where I was. I knew that I wanted to see the Vatican museums and the basilica itself, but I was tired from my journey and I decided to take it easy that day.

The next day, after a good night’s sleep and a full breakfast, I was off to my first destination. I could not put it off a minute longer; I had to see the ancient Roman ruins in the Roman forum. I took the metro to the Colosseum metro station. It was early in the morning but there was already quite a crowd and I got in line to enter the ancient arena. The line moved swiftly and it was in the shade, away from the blistering heat so I did not mind. Soon I paid the admission charge and entered the Roman Colosseum. Up to that point in my travels I had been in buildings that dated back to the medieval era and I had seen the remains of Roman walls and the bases of houses. But never before had I entered an actual Roman building that was still intact, and a colossal one at that. After passing through the tunnels into the arena-just like one might at Giant’s Stadium, I stood in the open light of the Colosseum. It is smaller than I had imagined it would be but the walls rose high around me and the places where formerly there were seats stood intact. I was amazed at the ancient craft that could have built this place. The Colosseum is, at its heart, made of a flat red brick held together with common mortar. It was originally covered with a finish of white stone which can still be seen on one side. As I walked around through the ruins I noticed names carved into the stone: millennia of graffiti. I was struck by how many millions of people over two thousand years had passed through these passage ways.

The Colosseum is named for the Colossus of Nero that originally stood on the grounds where the arena now stands. The emperor Vespasian commanded its erection in honor of his victories in Dacia. He chose the site because it was a region that had been confiscated by Nero for his private use. The Colosseum was continued through the reign of Titus until it was completed by Domitian. The Colosseum was the home to many different public spectacles throughout the long decline of the empire. Gladiators battled in the arena or fought large animals from through the world. The Colosseum could be waterproofed to have large sea battles. Contrary to popular belief, however, the Colosseum was not home to chariot races-it is much too small for that. After leaving the Colosseum I checked out the nearby triumphal Arch of Constantine.

The creation of triumphal arches was initiated by the Romans as a means of honoring their military victories throughout the ages. The arch of Constantine is in fantastic shape. It is covered with relief depictions of Constantine’s great military triumphs during the 3rd and 4th centuries and his subsequent conversion to Christianity. Not far away I could see more arches and columns which served as the entrance to the Roman Forum.
The Forum is located between the Palatine and Capitoline Hills. The Forum was the unofficial heart of the city. The streets of the forum were always filled with people transacting business, petitioning politicians or celebrating triumphal celebrations. The forum was filled with enormous temples, theatres and meeting houses. Now the forum is a shadow of what it once was. Single columns stand where there were once majestic marble temples. There are many triumphal arches, the porticoes of some ancient buildings. The Curia, the ancient senate house, still stands in the forum, as does the temple of Julius Caesar. Brooding over the Forum stands the Imperial Palace on the Palatine Hill.

The Imperial Palace was built during the time of the Caesars. It sat overlooking the forum as a reminder of imperial power to a city that had been founded as a republic. The palace is in ruins like much of the forum but some of its walls still stand. Leaves of grass waving in the breeze spring up among the remaining mosaics of tile from the palace floors. The emperors enjoyed their own gladiator arenas and chariot race courses. In addition the walls of the palace overlooked the Circus Maximus. The Circus Maximus is not an impressive sight. The race course is now little more than a dirt oval track with a stand of trees in the middle. The night before I arrived in Rome the Live 8 festival was held in Rome in the Circus Maximus and crews of roadies were still dismantling the stages. Having wandered through the intense heat of the city for hours I decided to take it easy for the rest of the day.
After enjoying myself for a few days and finding accommodations in town near the enormous Termini train station I made my way back to the Vatican. The Vatican Museums are extremely popular with tourists. The lines form fast and go on for blocks so I made a point of being there very early. At eight o’clock precisely the door opened and I filed inside the world’s smallest country.

The Vatican Museums house one of the most extensive collections of religious artwork. Some of the most famous Renaissance artworks ever made are housed on the grounds of the Vatican. After paying the admission fee I decided to beat the crowd and go straight to the Sistine Chapel. Conveniently the museum offers a route straight to the Chapel so that I would not have to see any of the other precious artworks until I was ready. After winding my way through a series of paths I found myself in the most famous chapel in the world.

The figures painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are alive. They look down from the ceiling and seem as if they contemplated jumping to the floor to stretch their well formed sinews. Each figure bore the fierceness of the old testaments pages. The fresco was stunning. My neck literally hurt as I stood there for I don’t know how long looking up. I made a point of looking around the room as well. This is the place where they elect popes and burn the ballots with their famous white or black smoke. After a long while in that ethereal place, I moved on to the rest of the museum.

The Vatican Museum is divided into different historical eras. The Renaissance artworks of Michelangelo and Raphael grace the walls in the elegant palace rooms. I gazed for a long time at the School of Athens, Raphael’s stylized depiction of great minds of the ancient world in an ancient villa debating the nature of the universe. My favorite galleries were the modern religious artwork. There were so many sculptures and paintings celebrating Christ. I enjoyed this section because I have seen many religious artworks and many modern artworks but I had never seen the colors and figures of modern art express the passionate emotions of religious artwork.

After leaving the museum I sat in a courtyard of the Vatican. I had a very interesting conversation with one of the guards about the Vatican. He told me all about the comings and goings of the city. The Vatican is really a sovereign nation. Its boundaries begin at the base of the stairs leading into the basilica and are bounded elsewhere by the high walls of the city. The Vatican has its own police force. The Swiss guards, while colorful, are mainly for show, the city actually has a much better equipped and more professional force. The Vatican also has its own shopping center and post office. The stores sell their own cigarettes with a Vatican City customs stamp. They are actually of higher quality than the cigarettes sold in the rest of the city. What a strange little world.

After my conversation with the guard I made my way through from the courtyard to St. Peter’s Basilica. I found, to my surprise, many thousands of people gathered for a papal audience. I got to see his holiness sitting on his chair speaking to the people. I snapped some pictures for the folks back home and waited until the audience was over so that I could see the Basilica. My first stop was the series of papal crypts under the church. I saw the relics of St. Peter and the tombs of many popes. I lingered for a moment, as did most other people, before the tomb of John Paul II to pay my respects. While I have never been much of a religious person, I had enormous respect for the previous pope. He was an icon throughout my life so it felt right to pay my respects.

After leaving the crypts I entered the basilica. I have never seen a church of this magnitude anywhere in the world. It is simply enormous. The main nave towers hundreds of feet overhead while the dome-which you can see from almost anywhere in Rome-rises hundreds of feet beyond that. St. Peter’s cavernous halls are filled with exquisite artwork. Frescoes, mosaics, paintings and sculpture abound in this titanic church. No piece of art in St. Peter’s is more famous than Michelangelo’s master work-The Pieta. Michelangelo’s depiction of Mary’s lament for the slain Christ is smaller than I had imagined it would be. It is disappointingly behind glass, making it very hard to photograph. The Pieta is the only artwork that the Renaissance master ever signed.

After leaving St. Peter’s I sat at the base of a column in the square reflecting on all I had seen and writing in my journal. I tried to cherish every image and store it in my mind for a life time. Having seen the ancient Roman ruins and the Vatican, I felt at leisure to see the rest of the ancient city at a slow pace. I spent the 4th of July in Rome-my only holiday abroad. It was a melancholy feeling to be away from the states on one of the classically American holidays but I and many other tourists made the best of it by enjoying it together. I joined a pub crawl-the only one I would experience in Europe. The vast majority of my fellow crawlers were American and we went from bar to bar dancing and celebrating Independence Day until the small hours of the morning.

The rest of my week in Rome I spent taking my ease. My favorite place to hang out in Rome is the Pantheon. The Pantheon is by far the best preserved building in Rome. The temple was originally built by Marcus Agrippa as a temple to all the gods of Rome. The building was destroyed in the Great Fire of Rome during the 1st century A.D. but rebuilt under the emperor Hadrian. It has stood ever since and is the oldest building on earth with its original roof. The Pantheon’s entrance portico is a popular place of gathering. The tall columns and high roof provide an airy and shady relief to the ubiquitous Roman sun. The interior of the temple is a dark and solemn place contrasted by one crucial detail. The circular hole at the apex of the domed ceiling allows some natural light into temple. During midday the sun enters the Pantheon as a solid column of light. The light is a pale gold that looks as though you could touch it. The effect is absolutely sublime.

From the Pantheon a dark stone path leads through a narrow corridor of shops and cafes leads to Trevi Fountain. The fountain was built during the 18th Century at the behest of Pope Clement XII on the spot on an historic fountain. The new Trevi fountain is one of the most breath taking baroque artworks ever made. Everyone gathers to throw coins over their shoulder into the fountain in hopes of returning to Rome. The fountain is a sprawling series of sculptures and boulders built into the side of a palace. The waters flow and spill in every direction. It is an extremely popular tourist destination so it is very important to watch out for the thieves that abound in Rome.

Later in the week I boarded a bus that took me to the outskirts of the city and dropped me off on the Appian Way. The Appian Way was the most important of Rome’s ancient roads traversing Italy north to south. The road is still paved in cobble stones; the narrow road is lined with high walls and villas. There is no sidewalk, and considering the speeds at which a typical Italian drives, it is an adventurous walk. After a short walk down the most famous road of the ancient world, I soon arrived at the Church of San Sebastian. For a modest fee, a tour guide led me and a group of visitors into the Catacombs of San Sebastian. The Catacombs resemble a network of caves, though they were dug by human beings into the soft loam. The earthen walls are covered with symbols of the ancient Christians, who buried their dead in the network of tunnels. Saints Peter, Paul and Sebastian at one time or another were all buried in the earth of San Sebastian. There are also many ancient Roman family crypts with walls carved in marble and devotional statues that have remained in perfect preservation for over two thousand years.

The rest of my stay in Rome was spent relaxing, checking out museums and eating great meals. I read for much of the time that I was in Rome. I walked down the banks of Tiber and sat against the high walls of the river bank, which are decorated with murals depicting the she-wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus. The river is a sluggish, algae filled affair that has seeped through the city since time began. Another fantastic place to relax is the Villa Borghese, the enormous municipal park to the north of town. The park is filled with fountains, gazebos and gorgeous trees and flowers. The park borders the Piazza del Popolo, a huge circular plaza at the confluence of a few major Roman roads. In the center stands an obelisk from ancient Egypt, one of the many carried from the desert as a trophy celebrating Augustus’ victory over Marc Antony and Cleopatra. There are countless such places in Rome-enough that you could spend months exploring it all.

Rivaling Paris, London, Madrid and New York, Rome is one of the most vibrant cities on earth. It is father of all western European cities and gave rise to modern Europe. The city is awash with ancient architecture, artwork and culture but still is the beating heart of modern Italy. The sun never seems to stop shining in Rome. The people are all tan, gorgeous and their accents sound like a singing voice. In Rome you can see precious treasures of the ancient world in the morning, lounge at an outdoor cafe by afternoon and dance all night at one of the many clubs. Although I had not planned to visit this imperial city, I will always treasure every minute that I spent in Rome.

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