An English Poet Follows Us From London To Rome

Trip Start Oct 21, 2009
Trip End Jan 12, 2010

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Excel Roma Montemario

Flag of Italy  , Lazio,
Monday, November 23, 2009

11.22.09/11.23.09             An English Poet Follows Us From London To Rome

This morning (11.22.09) before our flight, we had a lovely time playing with Sophie and Bronte – sweet little bugs in a rug!  Sue Ellen made some bacon sandwiches for breakfast – according to Murray, "proper" bacon, and not the “cardboard crap” we have in the US – and then was kind enough to drive us to the airport.  Our itinerary said that our Alitalia flight left from Heathrow Terminal 2, so we said goodbye to Sue Ellen there and jumped out of her care and into the pouring rain.  When we got inside the terminal, however, we found out that Alitalia had just moved to Terminal 4 – a 15-minute shuttle ride away!  In the end, we were RUNNING to make our flight on time – but we made it!

Roma, Italia!  Even from London, it's a huge change to be here.  We arrived in Rome around 4:30pm, and it took some time for us to figure out how to navigate the train system to get to our hotel.  After buying our train tickets, we also grabbed a few slices of pizza for a late lunch.  YUM.  This “crap” pizza from the Rome airport was so much better than most “good” pizza we get at home.  Ahhh, Italy!

Two trains, one bus, one taxi, and almost four hours of travel time later, we finally made it from the airport to our hotel.  Geez!  We had asked the bus driver to alert us to the bus stop nearest our hotel – he did so, but after we got off the bus, we were seemingly in the middle of nowhere!  After schlepping our bags over many a poor pedestrian walkway, we finally saw a taxi and jumped in.  The taxi driver turned back around to the direction from which we’d been walking, and finally brought us to our hotel (we had long walked past it – it is down the narrowest, darkest street you’ve ever seen!).  Next time we’re just plunking down that 50 or so Euros for a taxi straight from the airport!

We found our hotel – the Excel Roma Monte Mario – on (thanks for that suggestion, Di!).  We got a great, big room for dirt cheap (it’s now the off-season – generally accommodations in Rome are ridiculously pricey).  And, while our hotel is about a 25-minute bus ride down to Rome’s city center (we are in the Prati/Vatican area), it’s a beautiful, modern hotel with all the amenities (read: more flash than we are used to, minus the tour we just took).  So, being kind of in the middle of nowhere is tolerable.  Anyway, after settling into our room, we had a nice dinner in the hotel restaurant – a fixed price, 3-course dinner consisting of (what else?) pasta (short pasta with pecorino and black pepper – the pasta was thick, and chewy, and perfectly al dente); mains (chicken cutlet for me; veal for Murray); and dessert (delicious tiramisu for both of us!).

Today (11.23.09), our first day in Rome, we’re planning on exploring the centro storico – the historical city center.  The hotel surprised us with how nice the inclusive breakfast was (a full hot/cold buffet, but it had been advertised as an “American breakfast”, so we weren’t quite sure what we’d be getting)!  After eating, we grabbed the bus downtown.  It was fun to get a layout of the city during our bus ride – we made our way down through Prati, then crossed the Tiber River at Ponte Cavour and rode all the way to the last bus stop on our route and into centro storico, to the Piazza Augusto Imperatore.

It took us a few minutes to find this particular piazza on the maps we had – Rome is a complex maze of piazzas, one-ways, roundabouts, and streets that have different names on each side of the road!  (PS – I remembered this directional complexity from a family trip here in the early 1990s.  At that time, we had a small, two-door rental car and were driving through Rome for hours before we found our hotel.  My younger brother chose this exact time – in a hot car with no A/C, everyone stressed because we were lost and stuck in crazy traffic – to get extremely car sick, having to lean through the front windows from the back seat to get sick on the pavement outside.  Hahaha.  Sorry, Matt, but the story just had to be re-told.)

Once we orientated ourselves, however, we mapped a walking route down Via del Corso that included all the Rome hot spots and worked out quite well!  Our first stop was the Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish Steps (Scalinata della Trinita dei Monti).  The piazza was named after the Spanish Embassy that is situated there, but the staircase was actually built with a legacy from the French in 1725 and leads to a French church at the top!  I don’t remember seeing the Spanish Steps during my last trip to Italy in the 1990s.  They were neat, but very crowded.  Also – is this bad of me to say? – they were just steps. 

Suffice to say, we didn’t spend much time at the Spanish Steps.  However, I did like the fountain of a sinking boat at the foot of the steps, called the Barcaccia.  And, before leaving the Spanish Steps, we also stopped at the Keats-Shelley Memorial House right next door – the house where the English poet John Keats died, and which is now dedicated to his (and poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s) life and work and is full of poetic memorabilia. 

Faced with the famous Spanish Steps, which did not “move” me one inch – right next to the Barcaccia and the Keats-Shelley Memorial House, which did move me somewhat – I thought about Keats’ famous line, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”.  I didn’t come up with any new insights on that one, but I did ponder it throughout the day as we toured different sites…

From the Spanish Steps, we walked the short distance to the Trevi Fountain – Rome’s most famous fountain, immortalized by Anita Ekberg’s midnight dip in “La Dolce Vita.”  The fountain is impressive – it depicts Neptune’s chariot being led by Tritons with sea horses – one wild, one docile – representing the various moods of the sea.  The statues are huge, and detailed, and play in (and rise out of) the water in strange and interesting (and maybe even powerful?) ways.  Before we left, and when Murray wasn’t looking, I threw a small coin in the fountain to ensure a return visit to Rome some day (as memorialized by – Trivial Pursuit question – the 1955 film “Three Coins in the Fountain”).  Agreed – very corny – but also, I thought, mandatory thing to do while there!

From Trevi Fountain we walked over to the Piazza di Pietro, where we ordered some large, delicious paninis for lunch (Murray had salmon and sesame; I had roasted veggies and cheese; and, of course, Murray had some Italian beer!)  After lunch, and wanting to scratch the itch I’d had about it since arriving in Italy, we stopped off for some big gelato cones.  Oh, yes we did.

Tummies happily sated, and cones still in hand, we walked on to the Pantheon, considered ancient Rome’s best preserved building.  The Pantheon has been standing for nearly 2,000 years!  It was originally built over the temple of Marcus Agrippa as a temple dedicated to the classical gods (hence the Greek name), but has been a Christian church since 608 AD. 

From the outside, the church looks like a large, round structure with several huge columns in front and a square part in back.  I had no idea how big the actual dome is until I stepped inside – it was astounding!  No wonder, as apparently, the Pantheon contains the largest masonry vault ever built.  Light is provided by the oculus, a 9-meter opening in the dome – and 22 small holes throughout the marble floor of the church drain away any rain that enters through this oculus.  This dome is considered by many as the Romans’ most important architectural achievement, and I can see why.  Before leaving the Pantheon, we also stopped to view the tomb (containing the remains) of the artist Raphael, who died in 1520.

From the Pantheon, we continued walking south to the Piazza della Minerva.  The middle of this piazza is home to Bernini’s Elefantino, a bizarre and curious sculpture of an elephant supporting a 6th century BC Egyptian obelisk!  We also entered and toured the Chiesa di Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, a large and beautiful church on the eastern side of that same piazza.

Built on the site of an ancient temple to Minerva, the Chiesa di Santa Maria Sopra Minerva (phew!) is one of the few examples of Gothic architecture in Rome.  It was quite spectacular – very ornate, with marble floors and columns leading to arched shrines – a big change from the little Saxon Church we saw in England!  This church also contains a sculpture by Michelangelo – “Christ Bearing the Cross”, circa 1520.

From Minerva, we walked onward through the centro storico toward our ultimate destination: the Colosseum.  Along our walk, we saw (or rather, stumbled upon) several spectacular sites that were barely mentioned on our maps or in our guidebook, like the Area Sacre di Largo Argentino, an area of four temples built during the Imperial Period.  Rome seems to be full of these random pockets of ruins everywhere – some in great states of disrepair, others in perfect condition, and others still being excavated and worked on!  I guess this is inevitable in a city with such a long, rich history...

We continued walking for a long while around Piazza Venezia, and past the enormous Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, before finally glimpsing a view of the Colosseum in the distance and arriving at the Forums and the Palatine.  It was a glorious day, and another Keats’ line (from “To Autumn”) came to me:

"How beautiful the season is now - How fine the air.  A temperate sharpness about it [...]  I never lik'd the stubbled fields as much as now – Aye, better than the chilly green of spring.”

Autumn is my favorite season – and so far, autumn in both England and Italy has been spectacular.  (It still seems so far removed from Thanksgiving, however, which will be celebrated tomorrow in the US!)

Back to the forums.  In ancient Rome, a forum was a shopping mall, civic center, and religious complex all rolled into one.  The original forum in Rome was built in 46 BC, but over the centuries, successive emperors built new ones as demand (and vanity !) dictated.  We spent some time viewing the Roman Forum, the oldest and most famous of the forums, which looked really neat with the afternoon sun hitting the ruins just so.

Just down the road, we saw the Palatine, where Romulus killed his brother Remus and founded Rome in 753 BC. Today it is a beautiful area of ruins and great views.  Murray and I decided that we’re going to try to go back to the Palatine before departing from Rome to our next destination a few weeks from now, as we didn’t get to spend as much time at either the forums or the Palatine as we wanted to. 

From the Palatine, we arrived at the Colosseum just before its 3:30pm entrance cut-off time.  I would guess that of all the hot spots in Rome, the Colosseum packs the biggest punch!  As you probably know, it was at the Colosseum that mortal enemies met in combat, and condemned prisoners fought off hungry lions.  What you may NOT know is that the Emperor Vespasian ordered the Colosseum to be built, and it was inaugurated in 80 AD.  To mark the occasion, Vespasian’s son and successor, Titus, held games there that lasted 100 days and nights, during which some 5,000 animals were slaughtered!  Another ruler, Trajan, later topped Titus – holding a 117-day killing spree involving 9,000 gladiators and 10,000 animals!  

The outer walls of the Colosseum have three levels of arches articulated by columns.  The upper level, punctuated by windows, contains supports for 240 masts, which once held up a canvas awning over the arena, sheltering spectators from the sun and rain (the world’s first retractable stadium roof?!).  The Colosseum also contains over eighty entrance arches, which helped with crowd control and allowed people to enter and exit quickly (some US stadiums could learn a thing or two about this).

Walking inside this massive structure (which could hold more than 50,000 people) was awesome, even though I had been there before.  Kind of like that feeling you get when you haven’t been to a major league baseball game in a while and you first enter the stadium and catch a glimpse of that big, green field – know what I mean?!  It’s amazing to look at the Colosseum floor and envision (without Russell Crowe) all that happened there.

Interestingly, the interior of the Colosseum is divided into three parts – the cavea (three levels of spectator seating – with the plebes up high; nothing’s changed there!); the podium (for emperors, senators, and other VIPs – again, nothing new there!); and the arena, the most interesting of the three.  The arena had a wooden floor that was covered in sand so that the combatants wouldn’t slip – AND to soak up all the blood shed there!  Trap doors led down to numerous underground chambers and passageways beneath the arena floor.  Animals in cages, and sets for the various battles, were hoisted from these chambers onto the arena floor through a very complicated and intricate system of pulleys.  Interesting, no?!

After the Colosseum, we made the long walk all the way back through the city center, detouring only at the end for a stopover at Piazza Navona.  Containing three magnificent fountains, countless sidewalk cafes, and generally lots of hustle and bustle, this piazza must be one of Rome’s most captivating!  I understand it served as the city’s main market area for over 300 years.  The piazza also is flanked on one side by the Palazzo Pamphilj, formerly a palace built for Pope Innocent X but now home to the Brazilian Embassy.

As we walked around Piazza Navona and took nighttime pictures of the fountains, soft Italian accordion music wafted by from an old Italian busker at one end of the piazza.  It was romantic, and sweet.  We decided to sit at one of the (outrageously expensive!) cafes in the piazza for a while, and ordered some drinks (Murray: beer) and fresh bruschetta.  At the end of the piazza by which we sat, it was Italian opera music (of course!) that wafted by us.  Another (this time very) old Italian man was sitting at the fountain nearest us, waving his arms and body dramatically to the music and faux-lip syncing to the opera (Milli Vanilli-style, as Murray called it).  It was also sweet, and somehow touching.

Upon leaving Piazza Navona, Murray and I decided to head back to our hotel area to grab a bite to eat.  As we got off bus near our hotel, we came across an interesting looking “Cinese” (Chinese) restaurant and thought, “why not?!”  So, inside this quaint little place with illuminated glass floors lit up by green lighting – under which was a waterscape containing live fish swimming under our feet as we ate – we enjoyed wanton and cream and chicken soups, steamed dumplings, chicken with bamboo and mushrooms, and beef with peppers!  (Oh, yeah – beer for Murray, too – although it was Italian, not Chinese.)

Back in our room by 10pm, we were in bed shortly thereafter.  Today was “[r]ich in the simple worship of a day,” as Keats would say (in “Ode to May”) – a great first full day in Italy.
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