Oh Rome! I could stay awhile longer! Most of what I’ll say, is what all visitors say…I am consumed by the ceaseless visual delights. Wandering around without an agenda is the best piece of advice because if you are busy looking FOR something, you may miss the unexpected treasures that are so voluminous, they assault the eye. It is impossible to go one block without seeing something surprising, something beautiful, something rare, something ancient or something with an amazing story behind it.
After Gennaro (remember him from the train station in Naples?) helped me get an earlier train to Rome, I arrived in time to check in and take a good long walk. I don’t think I mentioned that earlier in the day, I basically got lost in the ‘burbs of Pompeii – during a rain shower. As you may know, there aren’t exactly many roofs in Pompeii due to the fact they all were incenerated so it was hard to find a spot to wait out the downpour but I managed to squeeze under a narrow footbridge with some Belgian students. I digress…my point is that I’d already walked quite enough for one day but once your feet start taking you places in Rome, it’s hard to stop, regardless of extreme fatigue. My loop included the Pantheon (Oh. My. Gracious.), Piazza Venezia, and up to Trevi Fountain which is undergoing a massive restoration. I would be disappointed about my timing with Trevi Fountain if I weren’t so googly eyed about other delights.
Oh and before I forget, if you travel to Rome and arrive at the Termini Train Station, there is a life-saving Info desk down the corridor next to track #24 (the Leonardo Express train to and from the airport). I was the only person there getting help which correctly indicates it is out of the way and is unmarked, making it not very accessible. But, I seriously don’t know if I would have made it out of the train station, much less all the way to my hotel, had I not made the effort to stop there. They sell superior maps, speak some English and can help you with instructions on buying a bus ticket, which bus to take, and where to get off the bus.
Tonight, I intended to spend time at the laundromat (yes, an enthralling evening out) but when I arrived, the man said they were about to close and for 13 euros, I could leave it for next day pick up. I admit I was overjoyed that someone let me off the hook. I’ve been spending such a small about of money (I think I spent 40 euros TOTAL the week of the art residency), that it didn’t take much deliberation to hand the laundry bag over and run.
So I ended up walking around the relatively quiet Prati neighborhood. I saw a woman smoking a cigar, I saw the Tiber turned pink reflecting the sunset, I saw the moon over St. Peter’s Basilicata, I saw little girls on skateboards with their parents strolling behind, I saw many bulldogs and pugs and dashaunds being walked, I saw old couples on old cobblestone streets helping each other keep their footing, and I saw many nuns on walks and in clusters hanging out on the corners, under monuments and along piazzas. I’d like to think I’ve developed a bit of a city swag as I walk these neighborhoods, but the truth is, I think I’ve developed a sway in my gait because it gives me the extra centrifugal force necessary to propel myself forward after today’s outings.
Speaking of today’s outings, it started with the Scavi Tour, which means a tour of the necropolis under St. Peter’s Basilica. Our guide, Daniella, was an enthusiastic and knowledgeable religion historian. But let me first point out, if you visit Rome and want to visit St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND signing up (a month ahead of time…google the instructions) for the Scavi Tour. It costs 13 euros and is THE ticket to success in the crowds. Seriously, you are amongst thousands and thousands of people getting in the longest lines you’ve ever seen (and for good reason, the Basilica is not to be missed). With your printed email conformation from the Scavi office, you bypass the masses, go around the left side of the ginormous piazza, and walk up to a little police trailer and poke your head in with a Buonagiorno, he checks your purse, and then these fancy court jester looking Vatican guards tell you to stand at the gate until 10 minutes before your tour and voila, they let you in. And that’s it. No line.
After the Scavi tour, you have access to the tombs of all the Popes and to the Basilica, including the righteous vertical hike to the tip top of the dome. But more on that in a moment. Before we scale the highest point, I must describe the dark, dank, oxygen deprived, winding, narrow, maze like environment down below. It was AWESOME. Other than the lack of oxygen, which made me feel faint, and a touch a claustrophobia, which I usually do not experience, what we saw down there was so old, so preserved, so historical, and utterly profound with regards to Christianity. As I mentioned, Daniella was outstanding in helping us understand how this area looked in, say, the year 100 AD.
Daniella explained what the site looked like before Vatican City was formed, even before Christianity was made legal by Constantine. The land was muddy and undesirable to Romans, plus it was on the “wrong” side of the river. Because the Roman practice was to put the dead outside the city, the hill on the wrong side of the river slowly became a popular place for upstanding Roman families to build their mausoleums. The narrow alleyways that are now under St. Peter’s Basilica were little alley ways between family tombs out in the country side.
Because the Roman practice was to respect all previously built holy structures, no matter what religion, historians believe today that they justified building a basilica on top of tombs based on the idea that the tombs would remain intact and unharmed, simply underground. Additionally, the Roman engineers built passageways that allowed them to haul in dirt to fill cavities and to build support beams for the new basilica.
After the Scavi Tour, once receiving adequate oxygen and feeling invigorated, I found myself going up a very long wide winding staircase. The incline was slight and the stair steps were both long and wide. After about 5 minutes of this loping around, we took a turn and walked up steeper stairs for about 5 more minutes. Once the staircase narrows to the shoulder with of your average man (European, not American, no offense to anyone, but potential visitors need to know that there is a definite human width limitation), you realize there is no turning around. This passage is one way only. And then, without warning, you pop out a door and find yourself amongst the mosaics lining the base of the dome cap. Looking down at all the tiny people wandering in St. Peter’s Basilica was both frightening and exhilarating. But wait, there’s more!
We were so high up, I mistakingly thought we would be fairly close to the top cupola. I decided to be brave and make my way upward once again. The staircase was terribly narrow and I noticed many people, such as all the men, turning their bodies at an angle just to fit through. There were areas of the ascent that induced vertigo because the step plane was no longer parallel to the ground and walls curved inward, not perpendicular to the ground. This went on and on and on and on and on. And when that ended, we filed up hollow tubes that were maybe three feet wide total (the tube, bot the stair width) that held tightly wound staircases with a long rope dangling down the center to hold on to for balance (no room for a railing!). This went on and on and on and on. I just let myself go into a meditative state and climb endlessly. Then, we arrived on the very tip top and the views were heavenly. After making it back down eventually, I visited the ground floor of the basilica which was saturated with sumptuous marble sculpture and mosaics. And more of the Vatican tomorrow! Ciao!