I sleepily awoke in a plush, foreign bed. Rays of golden light pierced through the vines blanketing the window and a haunting, pleading music floated through the slats of the moss-green, ragged doors to the terrace outside. As I walked out into the sunshine, giant seagulls cawed above and down below in the twisting cobblestone alley cars and motorbikes whirred past both locals and foreigners as they went about their day in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I was finally in Rome.
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Rome is a city grand in both history and beauty. Ancient piecemeal urban planning left room for foot travel with the occasional ass-drawn buggy, so the tiny streets could only accommodate so many motorized vehicles. Present-day traffic manifests this, and small taxis zip by pedestrians, buildings, and other vehicles with surgical precision and chariot speeds which left me reflexively flinching as our taxi avoided obstacles by inches. Also, at its heyday 2000 years ago, Rome was home to a remarkable one million people, resulting in an organic cityscape grown from the floor up with shops and restaurants at ground-level and cramped apartments towering above. I doubt this arrangement has changed much.
Along with the chaotically beautiful urban plan itself, Rome draws its character from its historical journey. Rooted in its culture is religion and food. Reflecting this is the flood of churches stretching from Medieval to modern-day situated on every other corner and the delicious restaurants everywhere in between. Palaces, fountains, and other signifiers of wealth and prestige dot the landscape and confirm that bigger really is better, and everywhere ancient ruins, glinting domes, or magnificent crosses lay on the far reaches of the sun-soaked Italian horizon. All of the architecture along with the merchants, pilgrims, Crusaders, and Saracens alike help write Rome’s wonderful story dating from the 7th century BC, and while school had taught me a little and my curiosity had taught me a little more, with my lectures as the figurative and the writhing streets as the literal background, my own journey through history was about to begin.
Our sojourn through Rome began unscripted. After a heavy Italian dinner and some sleep (for me, after over 24 hours awake), we had one day to ourselves, and so we began with a (what we believed to be was) a classic Italian breakfast.
The food here lives up to its fame, so I ate a lot, and often. In case you didn’t know, calories don’t count in Italy, especially when you have two more months until classes begin. I’m merely taking advantage of this cosmic loophole.
Our first stop was the famed Trevi fountain, found in many a movie. As we were to find out, it was classically Roman in that it was bigger and more beautiful than the pictures let on. We headed out past the large crowds to a small church in the same square and we were again amazed by just how beautiful it was. This is worthy of fame by itself…what must the legitimately famous churches be like? We had a light lunch of a personal pizza bigger than your face or a dish of heaping pasta, two appetizers, and a liter of beer before heading out to a museum.
This was a much quieter attraction than the Trevi fountain or the further attractions we were to see, even though it was just as beautiful as the rest. It was a personal palace of some Senator or another, and though it was not on The List of Roman attractions, it was nice to find the eye of the hurricane. Besides, there were a few fun paintings.
Later that night (and I mean later: restaurants generally open for dinner at 8) we went to a highly-recommended restaurant near our house and we saw a young woman giving her signature to other diners. Just as the Trevi fountain is found in many a film, the entire city of Rome is picturesque by its very nature, so in some studio, somewhere, we’re in the blooper clip of a future Italian movie. We think that is where our celebrity is from, but that is still to be determined.
The next day began the real tours, beginning with Palatine Hill. The Palatine Hill is the Roman equivalent of the White House. It lays atop the Seven Hills of Rome and surveys the Roman Forum and the Circus Maximus, fitting and prophetic symbols for the Republic’s eventual end. Furthermore, the entire structure is beautiful and impressive, both in grandeur and in technological prowess. Digital recreations of the buildings demonstrate rooms intentionally meant to seem to be stretching to the Heavens, and the fact that it still stands is testament to its much stronger brick technology. Overall, it is simply stunning, and a wonderful visual representation of the strength and greatness of the lost Empire.
The next tour spot was the famed Coliseum. As everyone knows, the Coliseum was the entertainment center of the city. Think of a much bloodier Broadway and Big House rolled into one. It was the largest such coliseum in the Empire and in its first season it is said that 5,000 people and 9,000 animals lost their lives. The entire structure was elaborate. The basement held slave-operated elevators that shuttled gladiators, actors, or animals to their act, sometimes their final one. The closest and best seats were allotted to the Emperor, the Senators, the priesthood, and the Vestal Virgins to indicate their high status, and a series of defenses including nets, spinning blocks, and, finally, soldiers peering through arrow slits, protected the important patrons from stray spears or crazed animals. The upper levels of the Coliseum were open to free citizens, and it held as many as 80,000 people, according to archaeologists’ estimates. As they say, the Republic fell to the Empire when the Roman citizens only cared about bread and circuses, and the Coliseum definitely represents the latter. Our day ended with sushi in Italy. Nontraditional, yes, but delicious nonetheless.
Our final day in Rome consisted of a tour of Vatican City. Vatican City, even though it’s the smallest country in the world, is still one of the most important as it is the religious and political headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. The always-reliable Wikipedia claims there are over 1 ¼ billion Catholics in the world, an astounding 17% of our global population. If you add all non-Catholic Christians to that number, Christianity is the world’s largest religion by a whopping 600 million people, over the next most prominent, Islam. That makes the Vatican rather important and, by extension, wealthy, and its history shows it.
Vatican City (which includes The Vatican and the Vatican Bank) is worth a (conservatively) estimated $10 billion. By my calculations and using the most recent figures, that means that if the country was as big as the US, it would be 1809.37 times as wealthy! I don’t know how they calculate the countries’ values, however the Pope is certainly not strapped for cash.
The Vatican Museums house some of the most recognizable artwork in the history of the world. From the Pythian Apollo to Laocoön and His Sons to The School of Athens, the Vatican artwork includes the originals of many priceless classical Roman pieces, along with some more modern pieces. However, we all know no one’s coming to the Vatican to see some charcoal lines resembling Mary and Jesus.
Part of the Museums is the Sistine Chapel. Unfortunately, no pictures are allowed in the sacred space. However, it is truly a sight to behold. Everyone knows that the center ceiling fresco is of God reaching fervently to a reclining, passive Adam. However, the rest of the ceiling is covered with frescoes, too, and even the walls are painted (though they’re designed to look like curtains. Nothing interesting there). As with all of Rome, pictures do not do it justice, so if you’re ever in the area, I highly recommend waiting in the massively congested and sweaty crowds to reach the fabulous masterpiece.
Our final stop in Rome was again in Vatican City: St. Peter’s Basilica. Its namesake- St. Peter- was the first Pope of the Church and one of Jesus’ 12 Apostles. The high altar, where only the Pope can hold a religious service, is said to be placed directly over the burial place of Peter after his crucifixion, and later archaeological evidence confirms that an important man was in fact buried at that exact spot (traces of gold suggest the corpse was buried with a gold cloth). It is the largest Church in all of Catholicism and second in floor space only to the Mormon Conference Center, and it is tradition that no building in Rome may be built taller than its highest point. Just as the rest of Rome was bigger than I thought, this Church is massive. Its size is impossible to describe in words, which I guess is the point. It is beautiful, intricate, and ornate, and it holds the tombs of many previous Popes and holy people. (It even has a preserved Pope in a glass coffin!) Another cool feature was that we were able to walk through the Holy Door. The Holy Door is usually only opened every 25 years on Jubilee years, the last one being opened in 2000. However, Pope Francis opened the Door December 8th and thus began the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, markedly 50 years to the day after the closing of Vatican II.
We rounded out our time in Rome as we began: eating. Some family friends were visiting Italy at the exact time as us, and we had a fun dinner in a quaint, rustic Italian bar. The booze and the chatter was free-flowing, and we spent many hours with each other as Italy would have wanted: eating, but most importantly eating together. We finished with a free round of limoncello and a picture, and our time in Rome (at least until I return) had come to an end.