Rome-ingAuthor: Lonesome Traveler
Date of Trip: July 2003
After my desertion I returned to the Pantheon and the Fountain. Of all the buildings so far, I’m most taken by the Pantheon. Partly it’s the dome and that opening, but mostly it’s a sense of harmony that pervades the place. The Trevi Fountain is beautiful, but I forgot to throw in my coins. I ate pizza at the Navona Piazza (or was it piazza at the Navona Pizza?), and then took a taxi to the hotel and my siesta.
Late evening, and I took a long walk back to my afternoon’s haunts. I got harmonized again at the Pantheon (put the Pieta in there, and I would set up camp), forgot to throw coins in the Fountain for the third time, then set out for the Spanish Steps. These Steps seem to be a happening place where nothing much happens. Among others, Byron and Shelley hung out there, and it is quite the place for romance—at least, so they say: Mick and I wouldn’t know. I was reading about a church in the area where a certain lady saint’s body is buried; which is fine, but the next part got to me: her head is buried in another church about 60 miles away in Siena. I don’t know about you or the topless lady, but that doesn’t seem quite right to me: the heart; a lung or two, maybe; the liver perhaps; or even a big toe—but come on, let me keep my head; I lost it enough in life.
As an aside, the place is called the Spanish Steps because the Spanish embassy used to be there.
Day Four — Forum or Againstum
Today I saw so many ruins I’m beginning to feel like one, especially my legs. I took in—or made a valiant effort to—the Coliseum, the Palatine Hill, and the Forum. One thing that strikes me about these kinds of sites is the contrast between the ancient ruins and the incredibly cheap (in the most pejorative sense of the word) wares sold in the souvenir stands. Certainly they are no worse than the ones at, say Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco; but to me they strike a much more jarring note. It seems that there should be some things that aren’t part of the general circus—maximus or not. On the other hand, I suppose that everybody needs to make a Euro.
The Coliseum is about as familiar a landmark as there is. What most pictures don’t show are the throngs of people and the location in downtown Rome with its constant traffic. The façade of this amazing building is about as imposing as it gets, but I was somewhat surprised at the size of the interior. While not exactly intimate, it does seem a bit cramped. Possibly it’s those towering walls, or maybe our modern gargantuan stadiums have spoiled us. By the way, my guidebook tells me that no Christians were likely thrown to the lions at this venue—the Circus Maximus crowd was more into that kind of thing.
The Palatine Hill is a vast, almost completely ruined palace complex. While there are a few walls, a large sunken garden or amphitheater, and a few restorations, it’s very hard to get a handle on what it all must have looked like. I wouldn’t skip it, but it might be good to lower one’s expectations, at least in terms of grandeur.
Ah, but the Forum! What a magnificent jumble of arches, columns, walls, temples, and assorted other ruins: standing, broken, fallen, leaning—and located in a sloping little valley in the middle of downtown Rome. The only thing that might be said against it is that, perhaps, it looks too much like the set for a Raiders of the Lost Ark type of movie. If it weren’t so real, it would look faux. However, I was in my element; I love ruins, the more so as I get older and come to resemble one. Give me four roofless walls and a dirt or grass floor over almost any intact edifice—the Pantheon excepted.
Later, back at the hotel, I made arrangements for a trip to Naples and Pompeii on Sunday—my last day.
Day Five — Ashes, Ashes, All Fall Down
I wanted to see something of Italy besides Rome and thought that the one hundred and fifty mile trip to Naples and Pompeii would provide a nice day trip. I certainly hadn’t “done” Rome, but I had made a start; and I had a hankering to see the countryside and another town. Because of transportation logistics and time, I broke down and took a guided tour. We left Rome around 7:30 a.m. Outside the city the terrain at times reminded me of northern California, treeless, rolling hills turning green with springtime. In other places it was more of an eastern U.S. motif with deciduous trees just beginning to leaf out. At other times it was just itself, slightly foreign, but not exotically so.
About halfway to Naples, we passed the Full Monty Casino, Italy’s most notorious gambling establishment where for entertainment strippers disrobe to the accompaniment of detonating bombs—wait, wait; I’m confusing that with Montecassino, the bombed-out Benedictine monastery where robed monks chant and pray—a natural mistake. This large, white complex of buildings is quite a sight on quite a site, sitting on a fortress-like rugged hill with snow-covered mountains in the background. It has been completely rebuilt as it was held by the Germans in WWII and bombed to smithereens by the Allies.
Naples, according to my limited observation, consists entirely of apartment buildings and traffic. Apparently there’s a city ordinance that requires the citizens to have at least one piece of laundry hanging from their balconies at all times—or maybe it’s their flag. The setting is magnificent: Vesuvius looms in the background, and the Mediterranean, encasing the Isle of Capri, sparkles in the foreground. There are steep hills; the city is somewhat like Sausalito, a Californian hillside, bayside town, on steroids. Vesuvius, while a hulking, slightly malevolent presence, is actually a rather ordinary pile of dirt. It resembles a giant carbuncle more than anything else, scabbed over but still unhealed.
We finally rolled into Pompeii around 12:30 and had lunch at a no star restaurant. If this establishment could make it into a guidebook, it would have to be represented by a black hole. I sat with two delightful Japanese ladies, a mother and daughter. They spoke barely passable English, and my Japanese consists of sayonara, but we somehow managed to exchange views on the state of the world, our cultural differences, education, travel, and grandchildren.
Pompeii is a definite “don’t miss it if you’re in the neighborhood, or even if you’re not” kind of place. Six miles from the volcano, it was a trading center of some 20,000 souls. Some two thousand of them were re-souled when Vesuvius blew its cool in August of A.D. 79. Much of the city has been excavated, and the ruins (my kind of town) are well preserved; at least the streets and first floors. Twenty-five feet of ash collapsed the roofs and second stories. If our guide’s site selections were any indication, every other building was either a brothel or a bakery. By the way, how old were you when you learned that a brothel isn’t an establishment that serves light soups to ill people? Luckily, I found out a few weeks before I left; otherwise it might have gotten embarrassing: “Excuse me, Mr. Guide, why did the Pompeiians eat so much bread and zuppa?”
By far the most poignant remains were the plaster casts made from people who were found in the positions where the ash felled them. Some lie in a fetal position, others are sprawled out as if caught running. For me, the most affecting was a small boy huddled, as if in a doorway, head down and arms hugging drawn up knees—resigned, it seems, to his fate and a future of millions of strangers contemplating his last moments. Don’t miss Pompeii: it’s haunted, but in a good way by ordinary people who were going about their daily lives.
Back in Rome after thirteen and a half hours, on an impulse, I hopped off the bus (actually, I disembarked with as much dignity as my stiff legs would allow) at Navona Square and took a farewell walk to the Pantheon and Trevi Fountain—where I finally threw in my coin and made a wish. Back at the hotel I packed for my 3:30 a.m. wake up call and my Roman goodbye.
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