Rather than analyze why the French government declares Christian (originally pagan?) events as nation-wide holidays preferentially to those of the Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Buddist (or many other) religions of the world I seized the opportunity to maneuver a long weekend into a week-long tour of Rome, Italy.
Impossible and irresponsible to ignore, Christianity played a monumental role in shaping the modern world in a political and religious context. This is evident in Rome, the center of the ancient Roman Empire, and is best to be respected whether or not you agree with it.
Um... traditional roman attire?
Being a travel zealot, couch surfing aficionado, and professional budget backpacker I was excited at the prospect of spending a week in this historical city but perplexed about how to do it on my budget. Luckily through friends, contacts, and sheer luck a fellow student and I managed to stay with 2 of her friends (thank you Alanna, Mara & Lucas!) in the heart of Rome.
I’ll readily admit that my knowledge of Christianity is embarrassingly slim, so I referred frequently to the Rick Steves (name dropping!) tour guide for context.
Alanna and I booked some cheap flights on EasyJet (65EU round trip!) from Paris to Ciampino airport; just a short bus ride from center city Rome. We arrived late at night by taxi to San Giovanni to our friend Mara’s apartment. San Giovanni is the modern church which was built over the first church built that was dedicated to the Christian faith. How’s that for some history in your back yard?
Crashing on a super comfy couch, we awoke early the next day ready to explore. We set right off for the Vatican Museum and what a sight to see! Not exactly bee-lining it for Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel, we walked casually throughout the museum section of Vatican City. Most of the trip was “plagued” by awful amounts of sun, disgustingly pleasant weather, obnoxious fluffy white clouds and persistently teasing breeze. Terrible, I know.
We then went to see the Pope deliver mass at San Giovanni. Little did we know one had to obtain these little green tickets a month in advance so we did what any logical college students would do — scalped tickets from nuns. Knowing only “bigiletti,” “per favore,” and “gratzia” in italian this was less than facile but Mara and Alanna managed to get 7 tickets for our whole group from some generous others with surplus tickets.
Good Friday Mass - The Pope is there, somewhere...
Seeing Pope Benedict was really cool and San Giovanni was a beautiful church but a 2 hour mass in Italian and Latin was difficult to stand through. ALL the seats were taken. After our Christianity half-marathon, the group was famished and Lucas’s mother treated us all to a DELICIOUS (emphatically) italian dinner at Bucatino; where they fit you with bibs so your clothes don’t get ruined from the gallons of spaghetti sauce.
Afterwards, we relocated to Lucas’ apartment for the remainder of the trip for more spacious accommodations, which was right around the corner from the Bernini’s Trevi Fountain. We then spent the next 5 days waking up at the crack of dawn to see all the sights that Rome had to offer. With a Baroque art student with me, I was enthusiastic about learning more about the architecture, history, and art of the Romans.
It would be impossible to recount all the amazing things we saw in Rome. This is a one-of-a-kind city with such great personality, friendly people, chaotic traffic, and astonishing history that it necessitates your own visit. I’ll try to highlight some of the “bests.”
Vatican museum and St Peter’s Basilica
St. Peter's Basilica
I mentioned the museum earlier, but make note: Visit St. Peter’s immediately after the Vatican museum and you will save yourself a lot of time waiting in line! I never knew how extensive the Vatican museum was or how massively impressive the Basilica is. St. Peter’s was being set up for the Pope’s Easter mass so throws of chairs impeded better photography. Oh well. Swimming through waves of tourists was worth seeing Michelangelo’s La Pietà, although it was entombed in bullet-proof glass after a man attacked it with a hammer years ago.
Trevi Fountain & Four Rivers Fountain
Bernini's Trevi Fountain
Bernini was a genious. You’ll notice the Romans thought so too because he designed nearly all the sculptures in the city. I’m only slightly exaggerating. Unfortunately, the Four Rivers fountain was undergoing renovation at the time, but we did get to see what they assumed to be an armadillo from the “new land” of America at the time.
Four Rivers Fountain - see the armadillo?
Sunset on the Mediterranean
Praise European public transportation. In most cities, it’s so thorough and easy to use that it makes driving seem ludicrous rather than silly especially in Rome. We were able to take a 30 minute metro ride to Italy’s western coast and enjoy the sunset and a cocktail overlooking the Mediterranean.
Thanks to Alanna and her Baroque art history class, I’m now a huge fan of Caravaggio’s paintings. We made a scavenger hunt of the city, looking for the many churches and museums where his paintings are located. Here’s one:
Colleseum & The Roman Forum
Admittedly a tourist trap one cannot come to Rome without visiting these ancient ruins. The inner barbarian in every man will be attracted, though equally repulsed, by the acts of savagery that took place here. Gladiators battling men, animals, and the crowds for fame, fortune or freedom. It’s a peculiar feeling standing in the same stadium where prisoners and derelicts were literally slaughtered for the entertainment and appeasement of the masses. Architecturally, the Colosseum is a work of wonder and is not to be scoffed at.
Adjacent to the Colosseum is the Roman Forum, a collection of ruins from churches, houses, and political establishments of the bygone Roman Empire. Nature slowly reclaims its territory as seen by the eroded buildings being overtaken by creeping moss and lush green grass. There’s also an animated book inside the gift shop at the Colosseum if you want to compare what the ruins looked like in a before/after fashion.
Galleria Borghese & The Villa Borghese Gardens
Housing several famous Bernini and Caravaggio works the Galleria Borghese is not only culturally significant, it’s gorgeous. The gardens and parks surrounding the gallery are vibrant, lush green, and contrast nicely against the sapphire blue Italian skies. This was definitely one of my favorite visits while in Italy.
The gallery management, however, is another story. Visits must be booked in advance and is rather expensive for a mere 1 hour visit. Pictures and videos were prohibited and women could not even carry purses. Otherwise, I’d have some great photos of Caravaggio works and particularly, Bernini’s David.
Art is meant to be enjoyed. Choose your method.
The Spanish Steps in the Sun
One of our first stops due to its proximity to our couch surfing hotspot, the Spanish Steps were quite a site. In front of the Piazza di Spagna tons of people packed on these stairs leading up to the Trinità dei Monti church, which gives a superior view of the city where one can see the crosses atop countless Roman churches. Although it’s not really in my interests there are lots of top designers here for the fashion-savy.
It was built in the 1st century A.D. Merely contemplating the age of this building is a challenging task! A man-made structure that is nearly two thousand years old?! Regardless, after recovering from this overpowering though I had to do my characteristic hand-stand in a photo though I wont post it for dignity’s sake.
Buried here is the artist Raphel along with the first king’s of Italy, who had a poor rapport with the people hence the remaining king’s buried elsewhere and the last known heir being regarded as a general “chump.”
Take a moment to appreciate the architecture: the dome of the massive structure is 23 feet wide at the base of the dome and made from a concrete mixture with added materials that vary from hard and durable to light and strong as the dome thins to two feet thick towards the oculus, the building’s only source of light.
Rome – What doesn’t this city have besides order? It was a great contrast to sit down at a restaurant and have the owner shake my hand and slap me on the back while picking on my accent when asking “dove il baigno?” Here’s anecdotal evidence as to the friendliness of the Italians:
After leaving the Vatican we were famished. We searched for a place to get something to eat and settled on this tiny, out-of-the-way sandwich shop. Doing our best in Italian, we tried to order sandwiches to which the two cheerful guys in chef attire responded “Haha don’t worry about it! How do you like Rome?” We then had a great conversation over the next few minutes about our travels and Italy in general while the men made us two delicious sandwiches of bruschutto, lettuce, tomatoes, fresh mozzarella cheese and olive oil, salt, pepper, and fresh bread baked in-house and lightly toasted. This was by far the best sandwich I had ever eaten and because we were short on cash, the man gave us a free grapefruit drink because he “though [we] should try this” and he mentioned “you’ll not find it anywhere else in the world.” We walked off with big smiles, a quenched appetite, and a fantastic memory of Rome and the Italian people. Such was our experience throughout the entire trip.
…Then we missed our 6 am flight and had to book another later that day, pay an extra 100EU and lounge around the airport for 8 hours.
Fields of Green