Sunday, January 15, 2012

When in Rome...

Currently we are in route to Kathmandu.  We started out from Rome last night around 10:30 and had a tiring four hour layover in Qatar this morning.  Now we are on the final stretch and should be landing in Nepal in an hour or two.  We were both very sad to say farewell to Italy last evening as it has provided us with amazing travel experiences and memories to last for years to come.

We arrived into Rome Wednesday afternoon and made our way from the train station to our hostel.  The train station is the largest one that I have ever seen as we had to walk at least a mile from the train to the actual station entrance.  There were plenty of shady looking characters along our walk, but as we neared the hostel the area appeared a bit more bright and welcoming.  It turned out to be a fine location in a quiet Italian neighborhood away from the crowded touristy sites.  We quickly got settled into our basic four bed dorm and briefly took a rest on the roof top terrace before hitting the city streets.

My first impression of Rome was not great.  After coming from a slower pace in small town Italy, the city completely overwhelmed me with its many crowds and insane traffic.  Frequently there is no rhyme or reason to the pattern of traffic with motorbikes, cars and buses weaving through the congested streets, ignoring all rules and always competing to be first.  There is one monstrous roundabout in particular that we had to walk through at least twice daily during our visit.  There are four one way lanes with faintly painted crosswalks and not a stop sign in sight.  We usually managed to cross with a group of people to feel more protected.  The hostel receptionist told me that if I was hit while using the cross walk, we would be rewarded 8,000 Euros.  He made this sound like a pretty great way to earn a little extra spending money.  No thank you, but after a day or so I had adjusted pretty well and walked out into all sorts of oncoming traffic without gripping at Aaron's coat sleeve in desperate fear. 

That first afternoon we got plenty of walking in, but didn't actually visit any of the tourist attractions.  We enjoyed eating gelato (coconut and pistachio) as we past the Colosseum and the Forum along our way.  The evening was spent strolling alongside the Tiber River and visiting the quaint neighborhood of Travestere.  Travestere lies just across the Tiber and is a lovely old fashioned neighborhood full of piazzas, narrow cobblestone streets, small gelaterias, pubs, and plenty of older Italians.  We entered a small local hardware store looking for a corkscrew.  The ninety year old man working there was very suspicious of us, and came hobbling from behind the counter with a stick in hand ready to defend himself from the haggard long haired man standing before him.  Once he realized that Aaron was harmless and actually willing to pay for the corkscrew he became pleasant, speaking jovially in Italian with plenty of hand gestures.  He even threw in a free bar of soap and thanked us profusely on our way out the door.  We weren't sure if he was trying to apologize or if he thought that we smelled.  From there we visited the ornate Basilica di Santa Maria, which according to our guide is the oldest church dedicated to the Virgin Mary in Rome, established in the third century.  We were in awe of high ceilings supported by twenty one ancient Roman columns, the colorful marble walls and floors, and the many paintings of Mary and Jesus.  Very Catholic and very impressive.  The long walk back to the hostel just about did us in for the night.  After a quick stop at the grocery store we made dinner of pesto and pasta, and we called it a night. 

We had every intention of being out of bed by 8:30 the following morning, but we didn't actually make it out until a little after 10:00.  Our first stop was the Colosseum.  Because we are traveling in the off season the lines were very short, so we only had to wait for about five minutes to purchase our ticket and enter.  Also, before coming to Rome we downloaded Rick Steves' audio guide, which provided us with lots of interesting information about the main tourist attractions here.  Our tour of the Colosseum was amazing.  The weather was cooperative with moderate temperatures, and the cloudless sunny sky provided perfect views of the ancient stadium.  The enormity of this building is breathtaking in itself, and to think it was inaugurated in AD 80 is absolutely mind boggling.  The arched walls stand so high above, and back in the day they were adorned with various statues and ornate decorations.  On the ground level lies an intricate maze of small rooms and hallways that was considered the 'backstage' area, below what was once the actual staging floor.  For all the wonder and the amazing architecture of this structure, it was also astounding to learn about what occurred here.  The theme of the Colosseum was death.  Spectators in the stands drank wine and cheered as they watched their fellow man kill one another all day.  Prisoners were frequently dressed as various characters and brought on stage.  Here they were humiliated and made to act out the parts of past battles or fallen enemies, dying in the same fashion as the character they played.  Gladiators fought to the death.  Midway through a day of 'games,' the rotten stench of blood and death became so overpowering, they sprayed perfume all throughout in attempt to mask the horrid smells.  So, the Colosseum was most certainly an interesting place to visit, but we were both clearly reminded of the cruelty of humankind.

Our next stop was to The Forum, the city center of ancient Rome.  From afar, this area looks like a pile of rocks, but the combination of getting up close, learning from the audio guide, and using a bit of imagination allowed us visualize what it must have looked like back in the second or third centuries. It was interesting to imagine the main road leading through the heart of the city lined with various shops. The guide walked us through all of the significant routes, like Julius Caesar's place of death and tomb. The Palatine Hills above the Forum were where the upper class of ancient Rome resided. Even after all of the many centuries gone by and all that remains are shells of buildings, it is still obvious that this area was for the upper crust.

Our last tourist visit for the evening was to the Jewish Ghetto. Thanks to Rick Steves for providing a guide to this area because it turned out to be an interesting part of the city that we would have missed out on otherwise. The tour started on the Tiber River at Rome's largest synagogue. Sadly, this small neighborhood was frequently flooded by the river many years ago, which is why the Romans chose this place as the Jewish neighborhood. In the ancient times, the Jews were forced to walk through the Forum where they were laughed at and spit upon. We visited a square where several thousand Jews were selected to go to the concentration camps during World War 2; many didn't return. Today, the neighborhood no longer floods, thanks to renovations, and the locals here appear happy and healthy. There are plenty of kosher restaurants and shops, as well a a Jewish school.

After a very full day of walking and sightseeing, we had pasta at the hostel, and our evening spritz. These days we have felt a little on the older side, coming in early and being in bed by ten (at least me). So, after dinner we were determined to go out to a local pub for a beer. We downed a quick pint each and then made our way back to the hostel for what was still an early night.

Our second full day in Rome was spent at the heart of the Catholic Church, the Vatican. The walk to Vatican City was long and tiring but well worth it because it was a fine day. Our first stop at the Vatican was St. Peter's Basilica. After standing through a security line for about ten minutes, we entered this most impressive structure. After visiting many churches throughout our trip so far, we have seen some large and beautiful ones. This gleaming, massive cathedral beat them all, as even our audio guide described its size in terms of football fields. With its marble floors and columns, its walls and ceilings covered completely with paintings, and icons and statues everywhere, there was nothing dull or drab about this church. My favorite part of this tour was seeing Michelangelo's Pieta, his statue of Jesus and Mary. It was subtle but sublime.

The next big experience was our visit to the Vatican Museum. Their collection of art and various archaeological finds is most impressive, but after three hours of walking through endless hallways of statues leads to intense grumpiness. I really enjoy art museums, but even I was limping, and Aaron was staggering like a zombie by the end. It is almost too much, but fortunately the Sistine Chapel awaits at the end, and it is a spectacular sight. Michelangelo's ceiling of frescoes is considered his masterpiece, and it's easy to see why. The colorful frescoes that he painted while standing on scaffolds and straining his neck take you through God's creation to the story of Jesus. The alter wall is his later work, a depiction of Judgement Day, which is huge and scary. It was amazing how our backs stopped hurting after entering the Sistine Chapel. Aaron actually looked human again.

Following the Vatican, we found some much needed gelato around the corner. My pistachio, ricotta, and dark chocolate ice cream cone was perfect after a morning of museums. We continued on our walk, and wandered towards the Pantheon, and even found the Spanish Stairs. I had never even heard of the movie The Roman Holiday, so Aaron had to educate me on this apparent classic that takes place on the stairs. From there, we made it to the Pantheon, which is an amazing dome shaped, Roman era building. We also had an audio guide for this, which made it an interesting experience; it was especially interesting to see the painter Raphael's tomb after seeing his work throughout the city. Before heading to dinner, we sat in the piazza of the Pantheon and took in the crisp evening air. Throngs of people out and about, enjoying the final few minutes of daylight while musicians played various instruments and artists painted the scene in front of us. We were just trying to take it all in before leaving.

Our final day in Italy involved wrapping things up, doing a few business chores, and eating one more slice of pizza before making our way to the airport. About an hour before we left for the train station, I just happened to look up and see a tour bus full of nuns in their traditional garb, snapping pictures and taking in the sights. It was a classic moment. We have loved Italy and all that it has had to offer us. From the quiet canals of Venice to the beautiful artwork in Florence, from the rugged cliff sides of Cinque Terre to the busy excitement of Rome, we have enjoyed every moment. We have also eaten our way through the country and will refuse to eat pizza anywhere else on this trip. It has spoiled us rotten, and it will make our entry into Nepal that much more different.

Nepal, here we come!

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