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Italy 2017 - Part 4 of 4: ROME

Man, if Florence took longer than I expected, this is just gratuitously late. Nevertheless, we forge ahead.

Even with the experience of hindsight and time to consider, I worry that I don’t have really anything to say about Rome that isn’t superficial or repetitive. It was, for the most part, just as we expected it to be. That’s certainly not a bad thing, especially when meeting high expectations - but in a trip of such unexpected discoveries and deliciously surprising experiences, it stood out for being the city that was most like we thought it would be.

In my memory, I remember Rome as more closely related to the “real world” I inhabit in my “mostly LA with a fair dose of NYC” existence. Of all the cities we visited in Italy, it felt the least foreign, the most easily understood, and the most comfortable. Whether that’s a good thing is left to the reader to decide.

The irony is that Rome wasn’t on our to-do list until the very end. We’d booked our flights into the country, but were still figuring out how we were going to get back. Barcelona, Geneva, and even Paris were all on the options list, courtesy of Europe’s extensive train system and a rather liberal expectation of how late we could get back to LA on Sunday evening and still be acceptably functional at work Monday morning. But a couple weeks of searching culminated in a chance sale on rather comfortable Rome to Oslo to Los Angeles seats, and we had our final destination locked in.

So because Rome was always booked as “the place to take the flight back home,” our trip headily biased our time towards the other cities we wanted to visit, thus leaving us just two and a half days to spend with the city. Added to this was the simple reality that Rome wasn’t geographically like the other cities we visited. With Milan, Genoa, and Florence, you could walk from one end to the other without too much effort - Rome, on the other hand, is damn near 500 square miles. Putting it in perspective, that’s just barely smaller than the city of Los Angeles, and more than 50% larger than all five for boroughs of New York City combined. It is, to use an old Roman term, “fucking huge.”

Nonetheless, we came into Rome in perhaps the best worst way possible: frantically trying to make our train, and dreading the idea that we’d have to immediately get a bus on the other end and somehow track our progress well enough to get off within walking distance of our apartment. Thanks to Google Maps and T-Mobile’s rather generous outlook on providing international data, our “run, train, bus” triathlon worked out almost perfectly, and by 2pm we had our bags in the apartment and were ready to explore the city.

As per tradition, the first day we got well and truly lost. And by design or accident, within just a few hours we’d wandered past ancient ruins and modern squares, the Pantheon and Trevi Fountain, Spanish steps and whoops-there’s-a-cathedrals. We weren’t really trying to hit all the spots, but everything seemed to lay itself out in front of us, and our feet continued to carry us towards monuments and cultural touchstones in short order. Maybe it was just luck or maybe it was habit at that point - who knows. But within four hours of offloading our bags, we’d hit a half dozen of the biggest to-dos in one of the great ancient cities of the Western world.

Three of my favorites worth highlighting a bit:

  1. If you’re wondering whether it’s worth waiting the fifteen to thirty minutes to enter The Pantheon, seeing the dome and ceiling alone are worth the time. I spent a half hour just marveling at the construction and laughed a bit when I found out that no one actually knows when it was built, or what sections of the structure came when. It seemed more than a little appropriate that, in a city where we often ran across ancient ruins across from markets and archeological digs in the middle of otherwise totally modern neighborhoods, one of the largest historical and tourist spots in the city is in many ways a mystery.
  2. Like moose, Trevi Fountain is so much larger than you think. However large you think it might be, triple it. Every photo or video I have is careful to have at least one person next to the fountain for scale just to show people “Look! Down there! That small dot? That’s a fully grown adult human!” It really was comically large, and the spray coming off of the water helped cool the hot September afternoon down a bit.
  3. Late in the afternoon, we went off to climb the Spanish Steps, and once we’d reached the top, we watched the sun begin to set over the still ten-degrees-too-warm city. As the fifty-third man offered me the “opportunity” to purchase an overpriced rose “for the lady,” we watched tourist and local alike all take a moment to sit down on the steps, wipe their brow, take a breath, look over the teeming life within the piazza, and feel the air start to cool as the night approached. It as if the whole piazza exhaled at once. It was such a simple, beautiful moment.

After having had such luck nailing all the spots we’d had on our to-see list back-to-back-to-back, we ran across a restaurant that Beth had on her “must go if possible” lists. Luckily, having run across it at just after seven, we were slightly before Roman-acceptable dining hour, so we were able to get a table outside on the patio fairly easily. And in return, we had one of the most distinctive meals of our trip.

For a restaurant that seemed to take “Roman Style” as as indication to go well past what you’d expect from Italian food, every single dish was interesting and wonderful. Even the dishes that included foods I don’t generally enjoy (raw tomatoes, for example) were bursting with flavor and complexity. Simple dishes like a grilled artichoke heart were somehow transcendent of their straightforwardness, while a Secondi that we ordered almost entirely because Google Translate told us it literally translated to “Rolled Meat Tubes, Roman Style” and we assumed that had to be a translation error, turned out to be exactly that: veal wrapped around vegetables, simmered in a tomato sauce, where every single flavor was both distinctive and balanced.

As a side note, this was only one of two dinners during our entire trip that didn’t include ordering the house wine - both of which happened in Rome. This first night it happened because the restaurant didn’t have a house wine, only a hundred-plus page book of wine options (thank you Tuscan Wine School for helping us pick a truly excellent twenty euro bottle.) The following night it happened again - this time because when we ordered the house wine, the owner straight up told us, in a very charming Italian accent, “Is no that good tonight. Is eh.” I asked to try it anyway, and when he asked what I thought, I answered in the only way that felt appropriate: an agreeable “Eh” followed by ordering a bottle that was met with nodded approval.

Anyway, that first night, as we discussed the day’s events, we realized that yes, Rome was crowded and busy - and yes, whenever we found ourselves around some of the more well known elements of its storied past there were lots of tourists. But get a hundred feet away and it didn’t actually feel particularly touristy. For the most part the city felt like the locals were going about their business, and the tourists clustered in certain areas. 

In short, it felt more than a little like … Los Angeles. Which is weird. 

To add to the comparisons, similarly to LA, it wasn’t a city that felt overtly inviting beyond the known tourism spots. To get any sense of what it was like, you had to really search beyond the bit that ended up up on the pamphlets. Again like LA, Rome felt like it had better things to do than to cater to the expectations of tourists.

The next day began the first of two scheduled days of our trip. Because of our limited time in the city, we had a couple things we put on the “must-do” list: one day was dedicated to perusing the Colosseum and nearby Forum, and another day was dedicated to The Vatican and hoping I could high-five the Pope (spoiler alert: it didn’t happen.)

There isn’t anything to say about the Colosseum that hasn’t been said before. It’s easy to stand there for hours, feeling the mass of history almost as if by a localized increase of gravity. I found myself fascinated with the textures - variances that denoted hundred of years of technological and cultural advancements, mere meters apart. Most of my photos, in fact, are just close ups or wide panoramas that highlight the textures of the Colosseum. That said, it was one of the few times I wish we’d have taken a tour - there’s only so much to absorb by walking around on your own and staring at things. The few times I overheard tour groups, the information they were getting seemed like fascinating additions to the experience.

The Vatican was the exact opposite: we had the unique experience of a guided tour of the gardens, coupled with a remarkably colorful history lesson that leaned heavily into the fighting spirit of the Vatican’s storied and tempestuous relationship with Italy. Turns out that even the heads of multi-billion-person religions are sometimes the scrappy underdogs in the retelling of their own tales. The words “faithful” and “exiled” and “oppressive” were used rather liberally as we strolled through the perfectly manicured gardens discussing thousands of years of Catholic history under the Roman sun.

Out of the gardens, we had the rest of the Vatican to wade though - something that I would have absolutely relished had it not been for the apparent flood of other people aiming to do the same. 

The one thing I wanted to see above all else was the Sistine Chapel - an hour-long wait that resulted in equal amounts of disappointment for the actual chapel itself and the disrespect of the visiting hordes. Granted, being packed into a small area with hundreds of people who felt too special to follow the repeated “no flash photography please - it damages the chapel” and “please no talking - this is a place of worship” announcements was certainly no way to fully appreciate the artistic elements of the chapel. But if I’m being completely honest, I don’t think I would have had much different of a reaction had I stood alone in the center of the silent building, free to contemplate and examine the chapel in solitary peace. I know the history and its importance. I’ve seen the photos. It…just didn’t do anything for me.

Now Saint Peter’s Basilica stands on the other end of the awe scale. In fact, it ruins the scale entirely, forcing you to hastily make a new scale just to properly convey the applicable amount of awe. Standing in that building feels impossible. The space between the floor and ceiling isn’t communicated properly with words - hell, it’s barely conveyed with photos. 

If the intention of Saint Peter’s Basilica was to be the physical manifestation of one religion’s idea of man’s distance from God, then they pretty much nailed it. Because that’s what it felt like to stand in the center and look around. 

The detail of the marble carvings was unreal. Or too real - rock conveying sheer silk sliding over bone and muscle and veins. The pillars extended upwards as if into the clouds. The angels above, carved out of solid marble, seemed at the same time far too massive to be supported by the ceiling, and too dainty to need to be attached at all. If they circled the room once per hour on their own power, I wouldn’t have been shocked in the least.

Even after two weeks of increasingly impressive cathedrals - nothing stood even remotely close to Saint Peter’s Basilica. Nothing. I think we spent an hour just walking around - seeing, touching, marveling. I could have spent a lifetime there and not been able to convey the majesty of the space. I’m not a religious person, but it is without question simply breathtaking. 

Back within the (Roman) city limits, the downside of devoting so much time to those two locations was that it left us just the evenings and our initial half-day to get acquainted with the rest of the massive city. The bad news is that I don’t think we really got to experience the culture of modern Rome as much as we’d have liked to in retrospect. The good news is that despite the timeframe, the evenings in Rome were nonetheless memorable.

Without going into detail on everything we ate and drank, it ranged from merely excellent to superb. Rome had treasures that ranged from a place near our apartment where the owner himself served us (and forgot to put in my entree order, resulting in a comically exaggerated forehead-slapping apology and a few items on the house), to the best gelato we had in all of Italy, to a nondescript restaurant in what can only be described as “cobblestone Brooklyn” where the room next to us regularly exploded with old Italians half-drunkenly singing old Italian standbys and the main dining room was filled with young locals there for the equivalent of your favorite Aunt’s home cooking.

We enjoyed three hour dinners where we chatted with the couple next to us (an older Mexican couple - he was a general in the Mexican military, and she was a diplomat), and the younger British girls who replaced them after they left. We watched a hundred mopeds and motorcycles all gather together to drink wine on the steps of a church, bought a bottle for a table of strangers we were chatting with, and nearly caused an international incident when we showed up at a restaurant with a bottle we’d brought from Florence.

That final night we walked slowly back to our apartment, hearing the local church clocktowers signaling midnight while knowing that we had to be up early the next morning to catch our flight - but nonetheless taking as much time as we could steal alongside the Tiber as it rippled and slipped south towards the Mediterranean.

Ultimately, I don’t think anything in Rome itself really surprised me - but I also expect that’s on us. My memory is of a major city, Italian style. There was certainly history, but it felt segmented away, and we never got to experience the rest of the city that was culturally distinctive from what we’d seen before. Again, it felt more like Los Angeles than Milan or Florence. But maybe that’s what Rome ultimately was (for us, at least) - an opportunity to end our experience in a liminal space that blended Italy with familiarity as a transition back to home.

As the taxi picked us up the next morning and took us to Rome’s airport, I took my final photos in Italy: the sun illuminating and shining through the long, languid clouds that hung high in the sky. After two weeks away, having seen six areas and cities throughout Northern Italy, and finally seeing the city where my family came from, there were just two flights left to bring us back to our daily lives. 

It was, as it always is, too soon. But in a trip filled with surprises, we still had one left: it turns out that if you catch the right flight - say a 6:45pm heading west out of Oslo - the sunset shines purple through the windows nearly the whole flight home.

Italy 2017 - Part 5 of 4: ODDS AND ENDS

Italy 2017 - Part 3 of 4: FLORENCE