Wednesday. September 7.
Most of the people on the Air Serbia flight to Rome were starting vacations. It reminded me of the flight to Las Vegas. Everyone is in a good mood. I had a steak on the “Business Class” flight that Jerome had arranged. It’s hard to get a bag of peanuts on most American commercial flights these days. The stewardesses were beautiful. I’ll miss the women of the Balkans. Montenegro and Serbia had been more than a pleasant surprise for me. The resort area on the Adriatic is a hidden gem. Belgrade is a great city.
It was another hour and a half flight over the Adriatic. I read a New York Times article on Cinque La Terre. I would be going there on a tour. It was still hard to believe what I would be seeing soon. I kept going over my itinerary. In Rome I would see sights that I had read and heard about since I was a kid.
I’ve been in big airports. The scene at the Rome airport was pretty wild. The pace seemed more frantic. I did the luggage and passport control thing and exited the secure area. On the other side of a plastic barrier there was a crowd of at least a hundred noisy people. Most of them waved signs with a name on it. They were guides, limo drivers and relatives picking up arriving passengers. It was quite a scene.
A woman with rolling luggage was walking in front of me. She stopped and searched the crowd. An airport employee quickly came up and told her to keep moving. A stream of people were exiting behind us. She protested, “I’m looking for someone!” “You have to look for them out there!” Keep moving. It made sense. They had learned that they had to prevent a bottleneck here.
Most debarking passengers headed to a taxi area. There was a blast of heat as we left the air conditioning of the airport. A young, short woman tried to grab my bag. She did have a uniform of some kind on. “Do you want a cab?” Yeah, sure. I let her roll my precious Rick Steves bag to a taxi in a nearby parking lot. She greeted a driver and I was off. It had looked chaotic, but it had been organized chaos. The driver was friendly. “Is this your first time in Rome?” He congratulated me for finally making it to Rome and started pointing out sights.
I arrived at the King Hotel on the Via Sistina 131. Carlo was at the front desk. He was a hyper bundle of nerves. I won’t try to duplicate his accent. “Do me a favor. You’re room isn’t ready, so I moved you to a suite for tonight. Just do me one favor. When you leave in the morning have your bag packed, and we’ll move it for you.” It didn’t seem to be a big inconvenience, and I’d get a suite! Sure, I’ll help you out. Maybe on the next trip I’ll learn to sweat a hotel on something like this. Get a free night, or something.
Carlo was friendly but he acted like he was trapped behind the desk. He shakes his leg while he’s talking. There’s a constant release of nervous energy. “Can I have your passport?” He would make a copy and give it back to me later. This seemed a bit odd. At the other hotels they had made a copy right away and handed it back to me with the key. Here I would have to get it back “later.” He gave me a key with a heavy iron keychain. In Italy you check the key at the desk when you go out. “It’s for security. Don’t worry. Someone will be here all night.” I learned it is the Italian way, but it did seem a little strange at first.
It wasn’t much of a suite. There was a smaller extra room with a single bed. I opened a window to a view of a brick wall. I found it a bit amusing. My deal on this trip was budget hotels. I wouldn’t be spending much time in my room. The King Hotel would turn out to be the worst hotel on the trip. It was hot and stuffy, almost stifling. I fiddled with the air conditioner. When I went downstairs other customers were at the desk complaining about the air conditioning. Carlo explained that it was working fine. I just wanted to get started seeing Rome.
There was enough of the afternoon left to at least check out the immediate neighborhood. I went up Via Sistina to the nearby Barberini Plaza. There I saw my first fountain in Rome, the Fontana del Tritone. It was made by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1643. It was built on the site of a pagan shrine. A sea god rises out of the ocean and drinks from a conch.
The Barberinis were a rich, powerful family in the 1500s. Romans said, “What the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did.” The quote means that if the barbarians hadn’t destroyed a Roman shrine that the Barberini family would. They were known for zealously destroying any pagan shrines that were still left. It may have been religious gloating. Christianity had conquered the powerful Roman gods. The fountain still looked like a pagan shrine to me.
The plaza and fountain would be a base camp for me. I could find the hotel from here. I would be seeing the southern parts of the city on tours later, so I headed up Via Barberini. The Spanish Steps were in this direction and I hoped to at least get a look at the Villa Medici.
The Barberini Plaza is surrounded by three streets. It’s a big intersection. There is a lot of car and pedestrian traffic. Via Barberini runs into Via del Quirinale, aka Via XX Settember. Traffic thinned on the Via del Quirinale.
The weather is great. Hot. This really is my summer. The buildings are old. The streets are cobblestone bricks. The sidewalk is very narrow. There’s not much room to avoid traffic.
The signs look familiar to me after the Cyrllic and Serbian signs. Attenzione! I almost know what they all say. The sewer covers say “SPQR” on them. It made me realize I was really in Rome. “The Senate and People of Rome.”
A block up Via Barberini is the Palazzo Barberini. Inside is the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica. I’m tempted to go in, but I’ve just started out and I figure it’s close enough to the hotel that I can visit it later.
I come to a corner and duck into my first church in Rome. San Carlo Quattro Fontane is on the corner of Via del Quirinale and Via delle Quattro Fontane. It’s small. It was built in the 1600s. By then Rome was running out of building room. Churches were built to fit into the spaces or lots available. The exterior of the church isn’t very impressive and it blends in with the other buildings.
The oval interior is white and surprisingly bright. The church was built by Francesco Borromini. He had to shape it into the small lot that was available. A large skylight above the altar makes the church bright. There has been a church here for years. Borromini’s version was finished in 1667. He waived his fee for the Trinitarians.
I pass some government buildings. There’s a more obvious military security presence in this area. Figures. I pass the Quirinale. It’s the home of the Italian president. It’s a grand palace and I get a look at some of the gardens.
I had learned from Paris. Save the legs. Get on the Hop On Hop Off bus. I want to do a lap of the city and get an overview. I took the Red Line that first day. The ticket was good for twenty four hours. The bus winds through Roman city streets.
We go through the large Plaza S. Maria Maggiore. We ride around the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. When I passed it later I saw a line in the back of the church waiting to go through metal detectors. The taped travelogue on the bus said that it has relics of the manger Christ was swaddled in!
The first stop on the Red Line is the Colosseo, the Coliseum. It’s very tempting to get off the bus and check it out, but I will be coming back to see it and the Arch of Constantine on a tour. The area in front of the Coliseum is jammed with tourists waiting for tickets to enter. I stay on the bus and get a glimpse of the Palatine Hill.
The bus turns right and we enter a large open area. It’s a park, but it’s easy to tell what it was. The oval shape of a race track is still there. Circo Maximo, the Circus Maximus. There are still a few ruins scattered about. It’s hard to imagine a huge crowd cheering chariot races here. People are jogging or walking dogs on the dry grass inside the race track.
On the Hop On Hop Off busses they pass out plastic ear buds that you can plug in for a running commentary on the sights you pass. It’s a great way to figure out where you are, and I was surprised how interesting some of the fun facts were. The Circus Maximus could hold two hundred thousand people. Scenes from the 1959 Charlton Heston version of Ben Hur were filmed at the Circus Maximus. What kind of a scene was that? There were ads for the recent remake of Ben Hur on the streets of Rome.
We pass the Piazza Venezia. Traffic gets heavier. The large Vittoriano dominates the area. It’s a large, white marble building with a large balcony area and a grand statue of Emanuele II on horseback. The Vittoriano was built in 1911 to celebrate the unification of Italy. The Romans despised its architecture. American GIs named it “the wedding cake.”
Near the Vittoriano is the Palazzo Venezia. It was the Venetian Embassy and had also been a papal residence. Its architecture is more ornate and Eastern. Mussolini used it as an office, and he made speeches to thousands from its balcony. It houses a museum now.
We rode toward and then along the Tiber River. Across the Ponte Sant’ Angelo is the Castel Sant’ Angelo. The fortress was built to protect besieged popes. There was a passage from the Vatican to the safety of the fortress. It was very tempting to get off the bus, but I pressed on. I wanted to complete most of a lap around Rome.
I did get off near Fontana di Trevi. The Trevi Fountain. This was the fountain in the movie Three Coins in the Fountain. I’m determined to do the coin thing. I’m not that superstitious, but this is one I’ll pay attention to. If you throw a coin over your shoulder into the fountain, you’re guaranteed to return to Rome!
I had expected a nice fountain in a city square. I wasn’t prepared for how large and grand it is. Most of it is travertine and white marble. Water pours out from behind large figures of horses crashing in the surf. Poseidon is in the center. The Roman god of the sea looks angry. Around him are mythological creatures blowing conch shells. The Polli Palace is a backdrop to the fountain. This was the site of a major aqueduct in ancient times. The fountain was rebuilt in 1570 and again in 1762.
There were hundreds of tourists around the fountain. Steps go down to a pool of water. They are jammed with tourists. It’s hard to wind through the crowd. I do the coin ritual.
I wandered a bit on the way back to the hotel. I found the Spanish Steps, but they were closed for renovation. Even behind cyclone fencing, they were still a tourist destination. I overheard someone say that it was a unique look at the steps. Usually the steps are covered with lounging people and you can’t see them. “We can see the steps!”
I knew I was close to the Barberini Plaza, but I got lost again. I didn’t hesitate to ask for directions. Everybody at least pointed the way. Some wanted to give me detailed directions. I learned it was better to just get a vague direction. I wasn’t trying to conceal the map anymore. I was a tourist.
There was a picture of Mel Gibson in the window of a restaurant near the hotel. The place had red table cloths and fake plastic grapes were hanging from the ceiling. It was a place that catered to tourists. The menu had pages with ten different languages. It was good enough for Mel Gibson. I entered La Tavernetta.
The waiter was a bit surly. “Do you want beer?” I ordered a seafood dish, Frutti de Mar. It was pretty good. Prawns stared back at me from the top of a pile of pasta and seafood.
It’s an open day. I have no tours scheduled. I’ll try to locate the exact meeting point for tomorrow’s tour: “Privileged visit to the Caesar Augustus Emperor home with Colosseum, Forum, Palatine.” This tour sounds almost too good to be true. It will start early, so I’ll wander in the general direction of the Coliseum and make sure of my route for the next morning. Then I’d wander.
I go up Via del Quirinale and enter a church. Santi Andrea Al Quirinale has a set of steps that lead into an oval space. It’s another relatively small church that is filled with art. It was built by Bernini for the Jesuits in 1670. Its oval shape is rare in Rome. Most of the churches have a cross configuration. A painting of St. Andrew is behind the altar. Above the altar is an oval window that lights up the interior. Many cherub figures lead up into the light. There is a shrine with the relics of St. Stanislaus Kostka.
I pass the Quirinale Palace and some other government buildings. It’s still early. There is military security at every building. The guards look serious, but many of them have mustaches and beards. Is that Italian army regulation?
I’m disoriented by the layout of the city and the smaller streets. I try to stay on “main drags” to get around. Any venture on a side street usually leads to me getting lost. I go south and pass the Museum of Antiquities. It’s tempting to stop, but it’s early on another great, hot summer day.
Via del Quirinale ends in an open space that surrounds Trajan’s Column. (Colonna Traiana.) I can see the Vittoriana looming in the distance, so I know I’m on the right track. It struck me that historic sites like Trajan’s Column are a part of everyday Roman life. It’s a sight I hadn’t planned on seeing.
I’m headed for Trajan’s Column and a young guy with long hair comes up to me. “Do you speak English? Will you sign an anti-drug petition?” He wants me to go over to a small table and sign the petition. Uh, no. I won’t. I heard later that gypsies run the petition scam. I’m not sure what the con is. Maybe it’s a diversionary tactic.
Trajan’s Column is about one hundred feet high. It’s topped by a statue of St. Peter. This had replaced a statue of Trajan. The column was erected to celebrate Trajan’s victory over the Dacians. Dacia is modern Romania. Part of the Dacian Empire included parts of Serbia. The relief sculptures ringing the column describe Trajan’s conquests. They can be read like a comic strip.
It was nice to wander at my own pace. I was starting to relax a bit. I would certainly see many historical sights in the next few days. I went by the Vittoriano again and continued along Via di San Teodoro. You can look down into The Forum. The Forum is about three floors below street level. There are areas to stop at with signs pointing out highlights of the ruins below.
This was a good place to hustle tourists. One guy wore a clown outfit and a wild Harpo Marx wig. You can tip him for the amusing photo op. Half the people on the street were selling selfie sticks, but it didn’t seem as intense as other tourist spots. It was still early.
I press on to the Coliseum. I know it’s close, but I don’t see it. I spot a middle aged couple that look like classic tourists. They’re wearing shorts and have cameras around their necks. “Do you know where the Coliseum is?” The couple is from Australia and they’re glad to help me out. “Sure, it’s right up there!” The Vittoriano had blocked my view. I was glad I asked.
On the way to the Coliseum I see a sign: Santi Cosma e Damiano. A driveway led up to an unimposing entrance. The church was the first to be built in The Forum. Christianity had been the religion of Rome for about a hundred years, but this church was the first built on the more valuable property of The Forum. The entrance and hallway look modern. There was major rebuilding in 1632. In Rome, 1632 means “modern.”
I was going to have to rethink my idea of what “ancient” is. Back in San Francisco I thought the missions built in the Seventeenth century were old. In Rome history began well over two thousand years ago!
The original Roman walls of the Santi Cosma e Damiano are still standing. A sign pointed to “The Roman Ruins,” but there were no tours today. Near the entrance some ruins of the original temple can be seen behind a glassed in area. This had been the Temple of Jupiter Stator in 300 B.C.E. The DK guide says there’s a legend that the church is built on the site of the Temple of Romulus in the fourth century.
The main part of the church is decorated with many mosaics. There is a legend that if someone ill sleeps in the church, they will be cured. There is also a nativity scene, a Precipio, that was closed today.
On to the Coliseum. The meeting point for the tour tomorrow was upstairs on the second level of the Metro stop. There was a small park there for commuters with a great view of the Coliseum. Whenever I see it I can’t help but think of the Oakland Raiders and the Oakland Coliseum at home. A Raiders crowd can sound scary. What did the bloodthirsty crowd sound like here?
It’s time for the Hop On Hop Off bus. A guy is selling tickets to the bus at the Metro stop. I assume the bus stop is right there and buy a ticket. He’s charges me more than yesterday’s ticket. He doesn’t give me change. His “commission” is three bucks. He tells me I can catch the bus at the Arch of Constantine. It’s not that far away, but it’s aggravating. I’m getting tired of getting nickel and dimed.
Today I take the Green Line bus. It follows the same route as yesterday. I certainly don’t mind seeing this scenery again. We pass the Circus Maximus and the Piazza Venezia. There’s a stop for the Pantheon, but I want to take a good look at my meeting point for the Vatican tour. This will be the big one. It’s the tour I’ve been looking forward to the most.
I get off at the Castle Saint Angelo stop. It’s another hot day, and I get a gelato from a truck stand before crossing the Ponte Saint Angelo. The street vendors selling selfie sticks and plastic toys are all over the bridge. Most tourists run this gauntlet across the bridge to the Vatican.
The imposing edifice of the Castle Saint Angelo looms overhead. It was a refuge for besieged Popes. There was a private route to the refuge for the pope. It looks like a longer distance to the castle than I had imagined. There was a line to get into the museum, but I passed. I really wanted that first look at the Vatican.
There was an area next to the river between the Castle and the Vatican. Buskers had set up, and some sounded very good. There were violin and guitar players playing classical music. Some of them were in historical costumes. Guys dressed as Roman legionnaires offered a photo op with them for tips. The atmosphere was like Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.
One person had a pretty ingenious set up. It may have been a child. This person was in a shirt and tie, but there was no head. There were glasses and a hat suspended by very thin wire. The wires were very hard to see, so it looked like an invisible man. It would be a great schtick for Fisherman’s Wharf. I made a mental note. There’s no Bushman here.
It was hot. There were more anti-drug petitions. You can’t even say no. It’s a waste of energy. I put on the tourist zombie face and walked by them. They noticed I wasn’t responding and they waved their wares to get my attention. They wanted a response, even if it was a no. It just doesn’t stop. Local entrepreneurs were hustling special VIP tours.
I was drawing closer to the Vatican and could see St. Peter’s Square ahead. Since I was a kid, I had read so much about this place. A popular toy of mine had been the View Master. You looked into a viewer and the pictures had a 3-D effect. One set of reels had views of the Vatican and the inside of St. Peter’s Basilica. The 3-D effect made it better than seeing the images in a book. There were slides of The Laocoon and The Baldachini. Some day I would be there. Today was that day!
Most of the stores were dedicated to selling religious souvenirs. This had been a place to make money for centuries. It’s an industry. I wondered how much money they take in. Photos of Pope Francis and Mother Teresa were on everything from calendars to place mats. They smiled back from key chains and coffee cups. Mother Teresa had just been canonized a saint four days ago.
This is an old tradition. People have been making or begging for money here for a long time. In Rome’s long history there were times when things were not going well. There were dark days of chaos and lawless anarchy. The pilgrimage to Rome had risks. It wasn’t always safe.
I walked up the Via dei Corridori. There was a large white tent set up with a sign: Jubilaeum Misericordaie. This was a special Jubilee declared by Pope Francis. It honored the fiftieth anniversary of the Vatican Council. The Holy Doors in the Basilica would be open. There would be special forgiveness for sins and indulgences. It was a big deal for the faithful.
Even the Vatican has its pagan roots. The area around St. Peter’s Square had once been a Circus of Nero’s. Constantine built a basilica here in 349. By the 1400s it had to be replaced. It took a century to build the new St. Peter’s Basilica.
There were beggars along the route to the Basilica. There wasn’t as many as on Market Street in San Francisco. Their method was a bit different too. They’re not aggressive pan handlers here. They’re beggars. Most had a basket in front of them. They sat or kneeled with their head down and held their hands out for alms. Maybe there’s a legal line they can’t cross by actually asking for money. It was a great place for the guilt trip. Maybe sins could be forgiven before entering by a last minute charitable act.
One poor soul sat slumped on the ground with his hand held out. There were huge boils on his head. A middle aged woman offered him a bottle of water. She was explaining: “Aqua, aqua ...” He didn’t react. I’m pretty sure he would have preferred cash.
Not all were as passive. An old woman with torn clothing worked the crowd. She was more insistent on those waiting in line for anything. I imagined her returning home to a condo she owns and changing clothes. Yeah, even here I’m a cynic.
I was trying to ignore the pests, but one black guy stood out. I’ll assume he was from Senegal. He was trying to sell bottles of water. He kept repeating, “One Euro, one Euro, one Euro...” like a mantra. It looked like he was rolling his eyes up into his head. Was his twisted religious ecstasy some kind of sales technique? Man does not live by religious fanaticism alone!
Wooden traffic horses marked the border. A sign told us we were leaving Italy and entering the Vatican. There was no passport check. I entered St. Peter’s Square. I felt another wave of emotion. This was the place I had heard so much about. So much history and drama had happened here. The tourist hustle did not detract from this historic, sacred place. This is the place where the drama of a new Pope addressing the faithful for the first time happens. The history and beauty of this place struck me. It is majestic.
There was a sea of plastic chairs that were still set up for the Mother Teresa canonization. She had been canonized three days ago. It would have been a dramatic event, but I was glad to be seeing the Vatican on a “normal day.”
It was still early. Things were just starting to happen. Large groups of pilgrims were gathering. The enthusiasm of the pilgrims was contagious. They had crosses they would carry into the Basilica. I could feel their excitement. It was the trip of a lifetime.
There was a mobile post office set up. I didn’t have many addresses on me, so I sent a postcard to my roommate. I still knew that address.
It just seems surreal to be standing on such historic, sacred ground. I scanned the Bernini Colonade. “Would you please move over?” It was a middle aged French couple behind me. They were smiling, but I thought they were a bit rude. At first I thought they wanted me to take a picture of them, but they explained that I was standing in the exact spot that would make the perfect photo shot for them. I thought they could have found a different angle. “Don’t you want me to be in the picture?” No, they didn’t want a record of me in their holiday snapshots. They had startled me enough that I decided to tease them a bit. “Are you sure you don’t want me in the picture?” No, they didn’t.
I wanted to see the exact meeting point for the Vatican tour. “Meet at steps near Cafe Vaticano. corner of Via Tunisi and Viale Vaticano. Across from the entrance to the Vatican museums.” I went under the colonnade. There was a long procession of priests in white robes. They were headed for a group audience with the Pope. Their joy was clear. A small street led to a corner where people were lining up to enter the Vatican Museum. The line wound around the old stone walls of the Vatican. It was already very long.
I went back and checked out the square again. It was another spot I didn’t want to leave even though I’d be coming back later on the tour. I went back up the Via della Conciliazone. The Nova Cafe looked too touristy, but I needed a break. The waiter was a bit grouchy. I ordered gnocchi. I’ve heard it can only be cooked correctly in Italy.
It was back on the Hop On Hop Off bus. It was almost noon and I got a view of the hustle and bustle of big city Rome. Traffic was heavy. Sometimes the bus hardly moved, but that didn’t bother me. I did notice the gas fumes. I got a taste of downtown Rome.
After a reset at the hotel I headed back out to see the Barberini Museum. There was a short drizzle of rain before I went in. The Museum was in the Barberini Palazzio. The family palace was built in the 1600s. The Barberini family was rich and powerful enough to get several members elected Pope. The Palace had groundbreaking architecture for the time that influenced many other buildings in Europe.
Three architects worked on the Palazzio: Carlo Maderno, Francesco Borromini and Bernini, This museum was smaller and not as mind boggling as other art museums I would visit. It also contains The Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica.
The paintings in the museum are from the Thirteenth to Sixteenth centuries. The Triumph of Divine Providence by Pietro da Cortona is on the ceiling of the Grand Salon. Other works include: Caravaggio: Judith Beheading Holofernes and Raphael’s portrait of La Fornarina. It’s a surprise to see the familiar portrait of King Henry VIII by Holbien here.
There’s a temporary exhibit that I feel lucky to see. There have been new efforts by the Italian government to safeguard one of its greatest assets, the authenticity of Italian art. A special arm of their police force track down fake and stolen art. They’re called the “TCP Commandoes.” The exhibit had great arts of work that had been stolen and forgeries that fooled museum experts.
There is a sign near the exit: “Bernini Staircase.” There’s a short hallway that leads to a tower. A white staircase winds up the tower. Is it more interesting because it’s a bit hidden?
I wanted to take it a bit easy and not wander too far from the hotel. I got a table at a cafe next to the Barberini Plaza and its fountain. The fountain is in a square surrounded by traffic. It’s a bit too busy during the day, but at night there is a calmer scene. Tourists from all over the world wander by. Most of them are looking for the Trevi Fountain.
There aren’t as many of the street vendors, but those on the plaza are hard at work. Some sell a plastic toy. It looks like a blob. They throw it on a piece of cardboard that’s on the ground. The blob splats on the cardboard and it makes a moaning sound. It forms a flat amoeba and then it slowly goes back into its original shape. They’re designed to catch the eye of young, bored tourists, who then badger their parents for one.
Guys were selling roses. One technique was to walk up to a couple and hand the woman a flower. It’s an old trick that has to work sometimes. Another guy was wandering from table to table at the cafe displaying some Disney figures. The puppets danced on a string in a little theater box. I don’t think the Disney corporation was getting a cut of this guy’s action.
Another plastic toy is a ball of light. It can be thrown high in the air and then it returns like a boomerang. I’m not sure how much skill it takes. The sellers kept throwing them into the air. They served as cheap fireworks.
I woke up in the middle of the night. It sounded like a large crowd of people passing on the street below. I thought I was dreaming, but something was really happening out there. It sounded like some kind of demonstration. There was chanting. I almost got dressed and went downstairs to see what was going on. I never did find out what it was.