Sunday, September 2, 2007

15 June: Two Girls Loose in Ancient Rome

We got off to a slow start after our late night out on the town, but hey, this is our vacation and we get to decide when to get going in the morning! Ancient Rome was on the day’s agenda, but once again we got a little sidetracked not five minutes from our hotel – this time by the artists in Piazza Navona. We were particularly attracted to a display of large-scale landscape paintings, the work of a charismatic beret-wearing gentleman by the name of Paolo who immediately engaged us in conversation and, well, to be honest, charmed the living daylights out of us. He asked where we were from, and once he heard I was living in Stuttgart, he told me his father and his wife were both German, and that he had some of his paintings on exhibit in a gallery in Speyer. We joked about last year’s famous Italy-Germany World Cup football game and, since I told him we were in Germany for John’s job, discussed the pros and cons of German and Italian automobiles. Meanwhile we were continuing to peruse Paolo’s lovely paintings of the Italian countryside. I would have bought one but John and I like to purchase our artwork together. Mom became enamoured with a Tuscan vineyard scene and eventually decided to buy it (Paolo knocked the price down from 250 to 150 Euro, which, for a large oil painting, seemed like a reasonable deal). We walked to a nearby ATM to withdraw the necessary cash, at which point Mom admitted that she thought Paolo might be fooling us with the whole German story, but I heard him mutter in German when he was flipping through his paintings and I found it hard to believe that he had made the whole thing up on the spot.

After completing our purchase and taking pictures with Paolo, we returned to our hotel to deposit the painting (thanking our lucky stars once again for the convenience of our location), then continued on our slow journey towards the Roman Forum. We stopped at Piazza della Rotonda again so Mom could visit the Pantheon. Half of it was closed off at Christmastime, but it was now all opened up inside, so I was able to get some better photographs of the interior. We stopped at the tomb of Raphael and marveled at the sheer massiveness of the dome and original bronze doors.

We continued on down Via del Corso to Piazza Venezia and the great “wedding cake” monument to Victor Emmanuel, which was now mostly covered up with unsightly scaffolding. We wanted to tour Trajan’s Markets but discovered that they had closed at 1:00, a mere ten minutes before we arrived. We had to make do with the view of the ancient markets from the street above, then walked slowly down Via dei Fori Imperiali past the Forum of Augustus to the entrance to the Roman Forum itself. I had printed off a lengthy walking tour from the Fodor’s internet forum and we used it and my DK Eyewitness guidebook as we joined the throngs of tourists moving slowly through the ruins. I won’t go into detail here about the history of the many structures in the Forum, since I covered all of that in my journal back in December, but suffice it to say that it was as captivating as ever, despite the unrelenting heat. We enjoyed seeing the poppies and other wildflowers blooming amidst the ruins (a new experience for me since my two previous visits were in wintertime). A team of archaeologists was working on a dig in the heart of the Forum – the first time I have ever seen active work going on there – and we felt sorry for them having to slave away in the miserable heat.

Mom took a rest on a chunk of marble column near the Arch of Titus while I went to buy our tickets to the Palatine Hill and Colosseum, then we decided we had better grab lunch somewhere before continuing our tour. The place near the Forum recommended in Mom’s cookbook was closed, so out of desperation we ended up spending a small fortune at a place right across from the Forum (two unexciting salads of mixed greens, tomatoes, ham, mozzarella, and canned black olives, two Diet Cokes and a bottle of water set us back 43 Euro).

Next we took a quick tour of the Colosseum, bypassing the long line with our pre-purchased tickets. I actually find this amazing structure most impressive from the outside, but I knew Mom would want to see the interior. I bought a small book at the bookshop that depicts all of the major ancient Roman monuments with clear plastic overlays showing what they looked like in their heyday. We then had exactly one hour to tour Palatine Hill before closing time; once again it was wonderful to wander amidst the ruins after most of the crowds had left for the day.

I am always surprised by how few people make the short hike up to the Palatine – not only do you get the most spectacular view of the Roman Forum from the heights, but the ruins of the palaces of Augustus and Septimius Severus are absolutely mind-boggling. We asked a group of young Italians to take our picture looking out over the Forum and then made our way to the other side of the hill to see the palace ruins and look down on the green lawn of the great Circo Massimo. We were still admiring the sunken stadium next to Domus Augustana when we first spotted the guards shooing people towards the exit. (This was total déjà vu for me because when I first visited Rome with my brother Erik nearly 15 years ago, we also got chased down by the guards!) Mom and I were quite annoyed because it was a full fifteen minutes before closing time, but the guards were watching us like hawks and started yelling at us when all we wanted was to take a few pictures of the stadium. A group of guards literally escorted us all the way to the exit while we gave them nasty looks; it was quite amusing! Sadly I didn’t get a chance to show Mom the very cool Cryptoporticus, the long tunnel built by Nero to connect his Domus Aurea with the Palatine palaces, but we managed to see most of the other major Palatine sites.

After exiting the Forum, we walked the full length of Circo Massimo (this has become a sort of ritual for me on my trips to Rome). Mom rested on a bench while I ran across to the opposite side to get an overview shot of Palatine Hill. Lots of people were out for an evening jog, following in the footsteps of countless ancient athletes. A photo shoot was taking place in the middle of the stadium; a guy dressed as a chef was balancing an enormous stack of plates in one hand and we watched for a while to see if he would drop them (he didn’t). We continued down the quiet streets of the Aventine district, drinking from yet another public fountain, passing the four-sided Arch of Janus and the once-bombed church of San Giorgio in Velabro, then heading towards Capitoline Hill. We stopped briefly to admire the view down into the Forum – now closed for the night and completely empty and silent. At some point along the way my camera battery died and I discovered that the spare battery I had brought with me was not charged either, but fortunately we had Mom’s camera as backup.

The eye-catching geometric paving of Michelangelo’s Piazza del Campidoglio on Capitoline Hill was also nearly devoid of visitors; we were lucky enough to arrive just as the sun was peeking through the clouds to the west, lighting up the sky and the façades of the Capitoline palaces in shades of peach and tangerine. The sun gleamed off of the bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius as we drank in the whole scene. We strolled down the Cordonata, the great staircase leading from the Capitoline back to Piazza Venezia, whereupon I decided to run (literally) up the Aracoeli Staircase to see if I could get a view of the sunset. My efforts were not wasted; I joined one other lone photographer in front of the simple brick façade of the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli to capture some incredible images looking out across the great domes of Rome. In the meantime Mom waited at the base of the staircase, befriending a young British couple who were hopelessly lost (they thought they were at the Spanish Steps). I showed them where they were on their map and what they should see in their limited time in Rome before we parted ways.

We stopped again at the base of the Victor Emmanuel monument to look at the ruins of some Roman apartment buildings before making our way back towards Piazza Navona. We decided to have dinner at Vecchia Locando, one of my favorite restaurants from our December trip. This time we ate outside (although their cellar dining room is awesome) beneath the atmospheric glow of red-bulbed lamps – a gorgeous setting on a narrow alley with a stone archway in the distance and blooming bouganvilla dripping down the wall above us. Amazingly, the same friendly waiter served us as in December and he thought it was quite funny that I recognized him. Sadly, Mom’s meal did not live up to expectations: she had a rather bland shrimp and artichoke pasta followed by steak with a radicchio and gorgonzola sauce. I talked her into the steak dish because I remembered an amazing sauce of the same description had topped my gnocchi back in December, but this time it was very bitter and almost tasted like they had forgotten to add the gorgonzola. We almost complained about it but decided not to. Fortunately Mom’s tiramisu was awesome. My meal, on the other hand, was fantastic – radicchio ravioli with gorgonzola followed by carpaccio with arugula, mushrooms, and parmesan (I think I could eat this meal every day for the rest of my life). For dessert I had the “chocolate pyramid” – a delectable concotion of chocolate mint with a hidden “treasure” of crunchy candied paste inside, all smothered in dark chocolate mint sauce. (This dessert was on the menu in December but they had run out; I was really happy to have another opportunity to sample it!) We finally made it back to our hotel after another stroll through Piazza Navona and turned in, thoroughly exhausted, at midnight. We had been on the streets of Rome for nearly fourteen hours!

No comments: