Strolling the Centro Storico

Trip Start Oct 20, 2012
Trip End Nov 02, 2012

Flag of Italy  , Lazio,
Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"Methinks I will not die quite happy without having seen something of that Rome of which I have read so much."  - Sir Walter Scott

Today was our final day in the great city of Rome, and our plan pretty much consisted of "walk and gawk." We had a laundry list in hand of places and things we wanted to see before we left town and a finite amount of time in which to see them. Unfortunately, we both had to give up on seeing Villa Borghese & Galleria Borghese while in town, figuring we would end up spending half a day alone there, ogling the art and statuary. In particular, I regret that we were unable to see Bernini's masterpieces, "The Rape of Proserpina" & "David," as well as the incredible works of Caravaggio, Rubens, Raphael, and Titian. Alas...I guess we had to leave something for next time!

With a pocket map in hand, we plotted out a course through the Centro Storico, the historic city center, trying to hit the highlights we had heretofore missed. There really aren't any metro stops within the heart of the Centro Storico, though, so this part of Rome had to be traversed completely on foot.  

Word of advice to future tourists:  make sure you have very comfortable shoes (preferably long broken in) with great arch support. We were on day four of our two week trip, and already we were both miserable with sore, blistered feet. By the end of this day alone, we had walked between four and five miles, and when I took my boots off, I had the unpleasant surprise of finding blood all over my insole and sock. Lesson learned. The boots were stowed in my bag the rest of the trip, and I traversed the rest of Italia in some high-top Converse. Violet didn't have any backup shoes, so we had to buy some before leaving town.  

Our final Roman adventure started with an early morning metro ride up to the Barberini station, which lets out on the surprisingly named Piazza Barberini, with easy access to the piazza's centerpiece, the Fontana del Tritone by Bernini. Apparently, this fountain, which is actually fairly tame compared to what comes ahead, was the first public fountain that was sculptural and designed for aesthetics rather than being plain and utilitarian. It was the beginning of a whole new Roman tradition.    

Walking westward down the busy Via del Tritone, we hooked a left and emerged at the legendary Fontana di Trevi. Located at the convergence of three roads (tre vie), it is often said that throwing a coin will ensure one's future return to Rome. While many people do so, I'd rather spend my coin on gelato, so it remained in my pocket. I have very clear priorities. Travel tip:  if you'd like to visit Fontana di Trevi, hit it first thing in the day. We were there between 9 and 9:30 a.m., and there were only a dozen others around, including a handful of police officers. Ample room for maneuvering to take photos. If you're into that.

This whole area was once known as the Campus Martius (Field of Mars). We only had a vague idea of where we were going, but we continued westward, strolling through narrow streets and then finding ourselves in a large courtyard with a massive ancient facade on the southern side. Apparently this was once the Temple of Hadrian, and the courtyard is the Piazza di Pietre, the Piazza of Stone. Built in 145 CE, clearly the Temple has seen better days. All that remains is the facade here, having been secured into later buildings and thus preserved for us to stumble upon more than 1800 years later.  
That's really been one of my favorite parts of Rome--walking through picturesque little streets surrounded by buildings so tall and crammed together that you really have no idea what lies ahead of you until you suddenly find yourself emerging into a gorgeous courtyard with ancient ruins, as was the case with the Temple of Hadrian, or else some other sort of relic of the past. You feel like you're in on a big the city is truly yours to discover. Several times we'd find ourselves entering one of these spaces, my breath would catch in my throat, and all I could think was, "Ahhh..."

Emerging into the Piazza della Rotonda from the shadowy Via dei Pastini and catching first a glimpse and then the full glory of the infamous Pantheon was one such "ahhh" moment. As with seeing the Coliseo for the first time, discovering the Pantheon elicits a curious mix of feelings. It's a little like a first kiss with someone special--there's surprise, a few beats wherein your brain is reeling, trying to catch up with your senses, and then it's "ahhh, so that's that." Eventually, everything slides into focus, but not without leaving a feeling of disbelief or unreality. The Pantheon, up close and personal, is gorgeous. The interior feels impossibly large, an effect of the immensity of the light-colored dome and the tall columns ringing the interior of the circular building. And watching the light from the oculus stretch across the floor as the sun rises higher into the morning sky? Surreal. The Pantheon was long ago turned into a Catholic church, and it continues in that role today, which is why visitors can see a bunch of Christian relics and icons in this house of many gods. Though large, the interior is relatively simple, and the efficient tourist can be in and out in a matter of minutes. But if you're like us, we spent the better part of an hour there, reading everything we could translate, viewing the famous tombs (Raphael!), and ultimately just sitting down on one of the stark wooden benches in the center to take it all in.  

For the record, there's yet another obelisk in the piazza outside the Pantheon. This one was constructed by Ramesses II for the Temple of Ra in Heliopolis. In other words, it was built ~ 1250 BCE. I hate that the Romans pretty much stole half of Ancient Egypt, but at least it's still around for us to marvel over, right?  As for the fountain the obelisk is mounted upon...well, I prefer not to dwell on it too much. It gives me nightmares. 
Next up on our list was the Piazza Navona, home to yet more of Bernini's masterpieces and just a few blocks west of the Piazza della Rotonda. On the way, we passed a whole bunch of Carabinieri and some fellas all dressed up in historical garb in front of the Italian Senate. I don't know if there was something special going on or if they're always out there with their hats and their sabers, but it was cool to see. However, since the other guards were carrying automatic machine guns, we photographed from a distance. No need to push our luck, right? Since the morning was heading more towards mid-day, the crowds were a little thicker in the Piazza Navona, so we didn't stay as long. We were, however, able to scratch off the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi and the Fontana del Moro off of our list. Impressive fountains--I'm sure they're even more impressive when the water is on.  

Piazza Navona marked the end of our planned excursion. What we hadn't counted on, however, was just how quickly we had crossed these sites off of our list. After briefly conferring with our maps, we headed south and then eastward along the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, figuring we would just see what we find as we headed towards the area of the Coliseum and the Circus Maximus. Therefore, it came as a complete surprise when we stumbled onto the Largo di Torre Argentina, an in-progress excavation housing the remains of four temples, the oldest of which dates back to the 3rd century BCE, as well as parts of Pompey's Theater, otherwise known as the place where Julius Caesar was assassinated. The area isn't well signed, but it's a sight to behold, particularly since it lies in the midst of modernity. Admittedly, after gawking at the ruins, we spent another ten minutes counting cats. Literally. The ruins actually act as a cat sanctuary, and it's a bit like playing "I Spy," trying to get an accurate count of the felines who call the place home. I hear there's a movement amongst some to close the cat sanctuary, citing perceived health concerns, but this tourist loved seeing them stretch and sun themselves where Julius Caesar once walked.  

Still heading vaguely south/southeast, we passed the Tempio Maggiore di Roma, the Great Synagogue of Rome, along with probably a dozen plain-clothes policemen.  Across the street from the synagogue was a modest plaque with the inscription:  "in perpetual remembrance of the 112 pupils of these schools who were put to death in Nazi extermination camps" (any mistakes in the translation are my own). Humbling, to say the least. 

Just south of the Tempio Maggiore lies the Tiber River and Isola Tiberina, Tiber Island. I'll go ahead and fess up that I mainly wanted to see Isola Tiberina because of Assassin's Creed. In the game, the Assassins' hideout is located on the island. Sadly, today it's just home to a church and a hospital. In stark contrast to the synagogue and the Holocaust plaque, in all of their solemnity, our visit to Isola Tiberina will mostly be remembered as the place we watched a panhandler urinate on the Ponte Fabricio and then return to the main thoroughfare to sell knock-off purses. So please, do yourself a favor:  buy souvenirs in stores!   

With a new destination in mind, we followed the river, passing by the Teatro di Marcello and the Temple of Hercules Victor until we ended up at the Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin, home to the infamous Bocca della Verita, or mouth of truth, the legendary lie detector of Roma. We channeled our inner Audrey Hepburn and stuck our hands into the mouth, and clearly we've lived to tell about it. While that was a fun, kitschy thing to do, the real treat was the tour of the attached church and its small underground tombs. I don't pretend to understand the obsession with holy relics, but there's something wickedly cool about a church having the supposed skull of St. Valentine on display. 

Alas, the clock ran out on our Centro Storico stroll, so we hoofed it through the Circo Massimo (where i couldn't help but challenge Violet to a race...which I won be default since she forfeited), grabbed a bite to eat at a pretty good little cafe on the corner, and hit the closest metro stop. At the Termini, before hopping on a train out to the 'burbs to pick up our luggage, we stopped to buy Violet some more comfortable walking shoes. I'd just like to thank the ladies of Foot Locker for giving us one of the most enjoyable shopping experiences of our trip. Their English was about as good as my Italian, but they were incredibly good-natured and patient with us, and for the pain they saved us throughout the rest of the trip we can only say 'grazie mille!"

After four days, we finally bid farewell to Roma and boarded a train southward to Napoli. Now Napoli experience...but I'll save that story for the next entry. 

Lessons learned today:
  • There really are a bunch of ridiculously good looking people in this country. They have so many of them that there are model-caliber women working as city sanitation workers. Just stew on that.  
  • Apparently Romans love their brightly colored high top sneakers. And their skinny jeans. I had 80's flashbacks on more than one occasion.  
  • Perhaps travelers would be happier if the folks in charge of the Roma Termini invested in some chairs for people waiting on their departures. Sitting on the floor on a bag is not conducive to having happy travelers in their stations or on their trains.
  • Only buy from street vendors if you know there are bathroom facilities nearby and you are not located next to a bridge, which apparently acts as a urine magnet. 
  • An old man sat down next to me on the train today. He then proceeded to start yelling and cussing. At first I thought he was just the token crazy dude on the subway, but after picking out a few words based on their similar sounding spanish counterparts, we realized he was slandering the young couple across from us for their PDA. Long story short, a few stops later when all of the not-crazy people left the train, he yelled some more and flashed a hand sign. And thus was our introduction to the colorful Italian gesture known as il Cornuto.
  • Cats make everything better. Feeling sick? Cat checks on you, purrs, and you feel better. Visiting an ancient ruin? Seeing cats lounging about in it, being cats, boom--100% better.  
  • Did I mention the good looking Italians?

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