When in Rome...

Trip Start Apr 03, 2007
Trip End Jun 16, 2007

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Today I got the full experience of Rome.  Packed and full of energy and vitality, it's a unique city with both a glorious history and a vibrant present.
My first two sites to see were the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain.  I caught the Metro from the station near my hostel, changed lines at Termini, and 3 stops later I got off at the Spagna stop, which is right next to the Spanish Steps.  The first thing you notice there is all the crowds of people, sitting on the steps and the small fountain at the bottom of the steps.  Next to the steps is the house where John Keats lived the last portion of this cut-too-short life.  At the top, artists were out selling their works and a picturesque church tops off the view.  It's certainly a memorable spot.
A short walk away, across a fairly major street, and within a semi-maze of small streets is the famous Trevi Fountain.  All the approaches come in from the sides from around corners, so you can't see the fountain until you're right there.  You can hear the crowds, though, getting gradually louder and louder as you get closer.  Both the movies "La Dolce Vita" and "Three Coins in the Fountain" (which I watched before the trip) feature this Rome landmark.  However, in the movies there weren't 500 tourists crammed into the small square that the fountain sits on.  Alas, unless you go very late at night or very early in the AM, the place is packed full of camera clicking, coin-tossing tourists.  As explained in "Three Coins in the Fountain", throwing a coin over your shoulder into the fountain is supposed to guarantee that you'll return to Rome.  Standing there watching for several minutes, I observed many people go through the little ritual.  I found myself wondering where (or to whom) all that money goes when they clean out the fountain.  Chances are it just goes to some maintenance fund for the fountain, but you never know, someone might have a good thing going there.
In the afternoon, I headed out for the Vatican.  The Metro has two stops for the Vatican.  The first is for St Peters and the second is for the Vatican Museum, so I took the second one.  Turns out it dumps you off a fair distance away from the Vatican itself, so after some aimless wandering around, I finally spotted the dome of St Peters and headed in that direction.  After climbing a long stairway, I found myself at the (quite tall) walls of the Vatican.  After walking along them for a ways, I came to the entrance to the Vatican Museum.  However, the line to get in went off in the other direction from which I'd come.  Now I've heard that the lines there are long, but I have to say that this is the longest line I've ever seen.  Imagine a line of people, 5 abreast, stretching off for the length of 5 or 6 football fields.  It really was crazy.  And since I came from the wrong direction, I had to walk all the way past the crazy line to get to the end of it, and then wait.  Luckily, the line moved relatively quickly (compared to the lines of the top museums in Florence), and it only took a little over an hour to get inside the museum.  I started with the Pinacoteca painting gallery (works by Raphael, Leonardo, Carvaggio), and moved on through the museum.  They really put you through the gauntlet at the Vatican Museum.  All the statues and rooms would be very impressive normally, but with thousands of people all crammed into them, the enjoyability factor drops considerably.  It wouldn't have been so bad except for all the tour groups that would stand and block the path (while listening to their tour guide's commentary) so that everyone else had to squeeze past on the edges.  "The School of Athens" by Raphael was quite recognizable from my Art History class.  Finally, after what seemed like endless passages and rooms, I got to the Sistine Chapel.  Basically, you go inside and stare upwards along with several hundred other people at the artwork.  On the front wall is Michelangelo's "The Last Judgment", the side walls contain works by several different artists including Botticelli, and of course the ceiling by Michelangelo has the famous creation scenes.  Wish I'd brought binoculars, the artwork as expected is stunning.  Eventually, though, you get a kink in your neck, and the crowd gets a bit overwhelming.  The Vatican Museum doubtless has much of the most impressive buildings and art anywhere, but as with the Louvre, it's a bit of an artistic overload for a first-time visitor at least.  Despite that and even the huge crowds, it's still a definite "must see".  Both the guide books and the people I talked to at the hostel said to go in the afternoon, as the morning is way too crowded.  Well, after seeing the afternoon crowds, I shudder to think what the morning crowds must be like.
After the Sistine Chapel, I took the exit to the right which leads directly to St Peter's.  St Peter's can only be described as immense.  I read somewhere that it can hold over 50,000 people inside. I can believe it -- even though it had probably thousands of people inside, it didn't feel crowded at all.  Michelangelo's Pieta (surrounded by more hoards) sat just to the right of the entrance, and near the center was a statue where a line of people would walk past and rub the feet.  The significance of the "foot rubbing" is lost on me, but I watched as several dozen people went through the little ritual - similar to the plaque touching ritual on the Charles Bridge in Prague (you'll know what I mean if you've been there).  The light pouring down from the dome (largest in the world, I believe) made for some pretty neat pictures.  Back outside (and squinting from the sun), I walked through St Peter's square, with its large fountains and surrounding pillars.  Off to the side, I spotted the papal apartments and the window where the Pope makes an appearance at noon on Sundays.  I wondered how much it must have cost to build all this, and how immensely wealthy the Catholic Church must be.
I heard that the Colosseum was free this week, so I caught the Metro train from the stop nearest the Vatican.  This was without a doubt the most crowded train ride I've ever been on.  The doors opened and what must have been an entire class of students crowded into the car.  By the time the doors closed, it was absolutely packed with people, but each time we stopped, more people would pile in, and by the time we finally reached Termini station (and sweet relief), there was literally pressure on all sides from people (just like a can of sardines).  The school kids started launching into a spirited song, but luckily the other passengers on the trains "shh'ed" them down before it got too loud.  Yes, this is Rome.
The Colosseum was awesome.  It was free as I'd heard, and there was practically no line to get in.  Given the current condition of the Roman Forum and the fact that medieval people's used it as a quarry for centuries, it's really amazing that as much of the Colosseum remains with us today.  Sure, the seats are gone (one small section has been reconstructed to give an idea of what it was like), and the floor is gone (allowing you to see the passageways underneath), but you can still get an idea of what it must have been like in its heyday.  My favorite part were the steep stairways that used to carry people up and down, to and from their seats, just like in modern coliseums today.
Next, I passed by the Arch of Constantine and headed into the ruins of the Roman Forum.  Seeing them now, it's just a pale ghost of a reminder of the glory that was once Rome.  Even still, they're incredibly interesting to see and to imagine what must have been, over 1500 years ago.  I climbed up Palatine Hill and got some great views looking down into the ruins of the Forum and the Circus Maximus.  I then wandered through the ruins of the Forum, seeing bricks that had been laid there probably over 2000 years ago.  I wondered if 2000 years from now, tourists might wander through the ruins of Washington, D.C. in a similar manner.  Only time will tell.
From the Forum, I walked up to the top of Capitoline Hill.  There's more great views from there of the Forum.  I walked past the Victor Emmanuel to Trajan's Column (had a scaffolding around it so you couldn't get very close - the plaster casts inside the Victoria and Albert Museum in London were better than the real thing, IMHO).  From there, I rested for a good while, watching traffic and pedestrians in the Piazza Venezia.
After the sun went down, I went for a night walk through the city.  I started in the Campo de Fiori.  The night scene had started to pick up and there were people all over the square, eating in restaurants and cafes or just hanging out.  This is near the location where Julius Caesar was assassinated.  I headed north to Piazza Navona, another lively square with some large fountains in it.  I watched the artists drawing portraits of people for awhile, and they were quite good.  I headed west to the Pantheon, with its huge marble columns at the entryway.  The Pantheon is surrounded by buildings of similar height, so it doesn't really stick out at all until you're right next to it.  I kept heading west and eventually reached the Trevi Fountain again.  Impressive in the daytime, it's even more so at nighttime when it's all lit up.  It was equally crowded, though.  Turning north, I finally reached the Spanish Steps again, which are also impressive at night when lit up.  I was going to hop on the Metro and ride it back to my hostel, but it was already closed up (it was only 10:30 PM).  The hours of the Metro are definitely sketch, considering it's a Friday night.  So I ended up hoofing it back to the hostel.  I got to walk through some cool areas though, including near the Villa Borghese, down Via Veneto (one of the trendier streets - the Hard Rock Café is on it) eventually back to Via Urbana where Roma Inn is located.
It was quite a day, and I ended up seeing a lot more of Rome that I thought I would in a single day.  There's still a lot left to see (Borghese Gallery, inside the Pantheon, National Museum, Catacombs, the Appian Way), but I got a good taste of Rome, and I enjoyed it so far.  True, it's hectic and energetic and crowded, but the history and vibrancy outweigh the downsides and make it a great place to visit.
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