Monday, December 22, 2014

Italy 2014: When in Rome...

I first visited Rome in summer 2000. After spending ~1 week in Paris, my parents and I spent another week in Rome, and they pulled out all the stops! We stayed in a fancy hotel, took guided tours, ate lavishly, and saw everything I wanted, from the Vatican to the Catacombs to all of the museums . I remember very much enjoying the city - especially since all of my art history knowledge was still so fresh - but also thinking it was incredibly dirty, busy, and full of smoke. I felt at the time that I had seen what I needed to see in Rome and didn't need to return.
Fast forward 14 years: Joe and I found ourselves flying into Rome, and trying to decide if we would stay for a day or two or move on to Florence. We ended up deciding to spend three nights in Rome, allowing ourselves time to recover from jetlag and provide time to explore the city once again. I'm so glad we decided to devote some time to Rome. While we spent some time doing the usual sites, we spent more time wandering around backstreets and searching for the lesser known sites.
Monday: We arrived mid morning, and after taking a train to city center and finding our hotel (Hotel Raffaelo, an inexpensive but good location option) - figured we would nap for 1-2 hours. More than 6 hours later we woke up hungry and disoriented. Oops. We wandered out of our hotel and down to the Roman Forum area. We ended up at a non-memorable restaurant (Minestrone + salmon for me, Spagetti carbonara for Joe), walked to the much more memorable Pantheon, and then called it a night. I'm glad we accounted for a travel day here, because we were out of it!

Tuesday: Our goal was to take a bus to the Appian Way and visit the catacombs. However, as we walked toward the bus we passed a near empty Colosseum and decided to visit, because how often is there no wait at the Colosseum?! We spent an hour or so walking around, and I was reminded of how gruesome and violent the Romans were during this time. The whole concept of gladiators and animal hunts is just crazy to me... So sad, really - but obviously a completely different way of life. Anyway, it was so great to see the Colosseum without crowds. I don't remember seeing it so extensively last time, so this was definitely something I was happy to repeat.

The Colloseum... not overcrowded with tourists!

From there, we walked by the Arch of Constantine and explored the Roman Forum. At one point Joe and I were going to stop to figure out where Cesar's memorial was, and as we got out our guidebook we realized we were standing in front of it. A random Forum fact - cow manure was one of the main things that helped "bury" the ruins!
This picture of the Roman Forum does not account for the couple who took pictures of a cat (!!??) for 5 minutes and blocked our nice shot. 
After wandering the Forum, we stopped for lunch and sadly learned that the Catacombs were closed on Wednesday! Planning fail. We also planned to visit the Jewish Synagogue that afternoon, only to learn that it was closing in 15 minutes. Another planning fail. Oh well, there was still much to see. We walked over Tiber Island and headed to the Trastevere neighborhood to visit the Church of Santa Cecilia and the Church of Santa Maria. The Church of Santa Cecilia was beautiful, and her legend is fascinating. But my favorite part was exploring the excavations below (a former Roman nobleman's house) and finding a stunning mosiac-filled chapel in the back of the crypt area. We had the whole place to ourselves, which again is amazing for Rome! 

Secret chapel under the church

After the walk through Trastevere, we headed back over the Tiber and walked along the river before wandering through the Jewish Ghetto and then heading back to the Pantheon.

The Pantheon, as expected, was incredible. It was amazing to me how I felt like I had been inside just a year or so ago. There just isn't anything like it, and looking up at the dome and oculus is just mind-blowing. 

After spending ~30 minutes inside, we headed outside to look for our last church of the day - Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. This church is considered the only Gothic church in Rome, and the differences were quite obvious. I loved the Gothic arches and blue ceiling, and a Michelangelo statue was a nice surprise. I also loved the Bernini elephant statue located in the center of the Piazza.
At this point, we were starving and found a friendly restaurant were we dined on bruschetta, seafood gnocchi, and seafood risotto. With renewed energy, we headed off to find the Trevi Fountain. Unfortunately it was covered in scaffolding (granted the Romans still created a spot to throw coins!); fortunately we drowned our disappointment with some delicious gelato before heading back to the hotel.
Bruschetta tasting
Wednesday: As I mentioned earlier, we had to come up with an alternate plan to visiting the catacombs. Joe took it upon himself to find some replacement sites. More on that in a minute.... First, we headed to Campo de Fiori and Piazza Navona to wander around. It was only at this point that we started to feel the touristy Rome I had expected. We headed back to the Pantheon to grab some pizza and sit on the fountain. The pizza was exactly what I had remembered - delicious, cheesy awesomeness. Joe and I loved it so much that we are taking it with us in the form of giant grease marks down our jeans. Oops! From there we sought after the "Best Gelato in Rome" where I enjoyed some caramelized fig + oreo cookie madness. 
Not happy at all. Not one bit.
Properly fueled, we headed to what is perhaps the strangest place I have ever been in Europe... Upon entering Il Convento de Cappucini, I wasn't expecting much. As we wandered through the museum, I learned about the Franciscan monks, their history, their dress, etc.... But then we entered 6 rooms that was half memorial/half art display that included arrangements of 3,000 dead bodies. I'm talking skulls, hip bones, vertebrae, jaws, mummification.... It still gives me the creeps thinking about it. The legend goes that a monk build these shrines in exchange for decided where his body would go. I'm glad they didn't allow photos because I prefer to forget what I saw there! (Not sure I ever will though - so creepy! If you want to check it out, google it or look here.)
In order to fill my mind with something less creepy, we headed to Santa Maria della Vittoria to see Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Theresa. I remember making a special visit to this church back in 2000 because we had studied the sculpture so extensively. Back then it was completely empty, but now the tourists have caught on.  Understandably so - the sculpture is gorgeous and well worth a second visit.
Lastly we headed to the Basilica di San Clemente, located near the Colosseum. This church was incredible! The current church is the third building ("known" building at least) on this site. We were able to visit the church, but also visit an early Christian basilica located 4 meters under the existing church. It dated from the mid 4th to early 5th century. But even more impressive was an archeological site located 10 meters below ground. The site included a Mithraeum and buildings built in the 1st century! Joe and I were in awe of how preserved the rooms were, and how similar the building methods are to today's methods. This was definitely a well worth-it stop, and served as the perfect representation of Rome's varied history.
That evening we grabbed dinner near the hotel (Minestrone and calamari for me, Carbonara for Joe) and called it a night. I wish I had my fitbit so I could tell how far we've been walking - though I expect based on my soreness that it is a lot.
In summary, I'm really glad we decided to devote some time to Rome. It was fantastic to see the city without the summertime crowds or heat, and also to venture to some off-the-beaten-path spots.
Next stop: Florence!

No comments: