Buzzing Through Rome, Italy
The first of copious rain showers was pummeling Rome when I got off the train. I patiently waited for a little blue hole in the clouds to float over my position and then ran like hell for the M & J hostel which was only two blocks from the train station. M & J was one of about seven Rome hostels that people had insisted that I stay in. In the end, M & J got my business simply for the free internet. I was sick of having my budget taking hits from the fantastically over-priced Italian internet cafes.
My first day in Rome was almost a total loss due to the ceaseless rain, but the sun eventually made an appearance at about 4:00PM, at which point I was so wound up from Hostel Fever that I immediately dropped everything, gave the hostel’s resident doberman a scratch and headed out the door to case the neighborhood. The streets of Rome are tightly packed with cars, pedestrians and, most notably, deranged people on motorcycles and scooters who don’t seem to be restricted by any explicit driving rules. These people basically go wherever there’s space and when they go, they go really effing fast, because space is a fleeting thing on the streets of Rome. I came within millimeters of being clipped by these people a few dozen times a day while in Rome. You need to have a lot of faith and trust in the Italian drivers if you ever expect to step foot off your block. In order to cross the street at an uncontrolled intersection in Italy, and there are many, you have to boldly step out into traffic and pray that people brake for you. Actually the Italian drivers, even the lunatics on two wheels, are extremely alert and dutifully stop as soon as someone steps into their path, but they don’t stop or even slow down expectantly unless you are right in front of their vehicles. While you inch across the street, traffic is zipping by an arm’s length in front and behind you the entire way, causing your asshole to pucker up to a tautness that could sever a…well, use your imagination. I couldn’t work up the guts to do the faith crossing for the first few days. If I ever wanted to cross a street, I would wander around until I found a controlled intersection or I would skitter across in the protective company of a nun.
While cars are navigated with slightly less Kamikaze-like fervor, all conventions are quickly forgotten when it comes time to park. The only thing that limits Romans in parking their cars is the scope of their creativity. I saw cars everywhere, parked in front of crosswalks, garage doors, on sidewalks and even brazenly double parked over police cars. Then there were the people who appeared to have been about 30 seconds away from birthing a 12 lb. baby when they parked their cars. It wasn’t uncommon to find a car hastily and carelessly parked with the nose in, maybe one wheel on the sidewalk and the tail sticking out, cutting the already tight one lane road down to three-fourths of a lane. As soon as a medium sized car came along traffic stopped and everyone had to lean on their horns for 20 minutes until the poorly parked car owner came out and drove off. By then cars would be backed up for miles with the refrain of their horns jacking up the decibels on the otherwise only moderately deafening streets of Rome.
The next morning, I started the day by diving into the teeth of Roman mass-tourism at the Colosseum. On my way, I cut through the grounds of the Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli and spontaneously stopped for a visit. The Basilica is small by Italian standards, but it has a wicked ceiling fresco that must have taken someone years to paint and features Michelangelo’s sculpture “Moses,” which was harshly over-lit for my visit by a TV crew that was there doing a feature.
I was still fifty yards from the Colosseum when a Tour Pimp grabbed me and easily sold me a guided tour of both the Colosseum and the neighboring Palatine, including admission to both places, all for 18 euros. The word on the street was that this particular arrangement was the best deal, not only see the sights without standing in line for half the morning, but to also learn about what you’re seeing rather than just mindlessly admiring a bunch of ruins. I forked over the money and joined the tour which had just started a minute earlier.
Our guide had either ingested three hits of pharmacy-grade Ecstasy before the tour or she was doing a commendable job at presenting in the classic Roman theatre delivery, with much drama, gesturing and zeal. Either way she was very entertaining and we all had fun. Notable tidbits that I learned about the Colosseum included:
1. “The Colosseum” is just a nickname. The actual name is the Roman Flavian Amphitheatre, but apparently this was too wordy for ancient Romans and they started calling it the Colosseum, just because it was so damn colossal.
2. It was built in a relatively swift eight years. This floored me as I knew damn well that in this day and age any Italian project of that size could never be completed that fast. I had gotten enough of a taste of the Italian work ethic to know that things would either be proceeding at a snail’s pace or perhaps at something approaching an average pace if everyone had been given a little under the table hand greasing before things got started. Fortunately, 2,000 years ago the Romans had the considerable advantage of having free labor provided by countless slaves and prisoners, a trend that they copied from the Egyptians.
3. Today, nearly half of the Colosseum is less than 200 years old. Back in the 1800s, a huge restoration project was launched to keep the thing from literally falling apart due to centuries of looting by everyone from those wacky medieval Christians to Napoleon “My Little Pony” Bonaparte. The primary source of the problem was that the once lavishly marble adorned Colosseum had been stripped bare and part of the stripping had included ripping out the valuable brass spikes in the arches and walls that fasten the decorative marble to the amphitheatre, which were later melted to be used for armor and coins. The deep holes left behind by uprooting these spikes had severely weakened the entire structure. Numerous columns and arches had already collapsed and it was only a matter of time before the rest of the Colosseum was a pile of rubble. So the current Colosseum is a hybrid of 2,000 year old stone and 200 year old brick. Restoration efforts are still in process, though despite being half covered in scaffolding and construction barriers, when I was there (a Wednesday morning), I didn’t see a single worker anywhere on the site, which probably explains why restoration efforts have been going on for such a long time. Maybe Rome just needs to round up a new crew of slaves and prisoners.
The Colosseum was host to about 2,856 remarkably shrill Italian children the day I visited. Even the tour guide, who was also Italian, was getting annoyed, which is saying something. After dodging the children for much of the tour, our guide released us for an hour and a half to do our own wandering, get food, pee and finally convene at the exit for the tour of the Palatine. I took the opportunity to check out an extraordinary exhibit on the second floor, which was laden with incredible examples of ancient Roman sculpture, pottery and tile art.
Ninety minutes later, we regrouped only to discover that they swapped tour guides on us during the break and we were stuck with a much less entertaining, surprisingly low-talking Italian man who had the added disadvantage of having the group double in size as we were join by another tour group from the same company that had just emerged from the Colosseum. When the low-talker was audible, he had oodles of cool information. As we descended into the Palatine, we became surrounded by a huge excavated field of fantastic, breathtaking, partially-standing ruins that had been the center of Rome 2,000 years earlier. After a few centuries of intermittent flooding, the entire area had been completely covered in mud, raising the ground level to over the second story of the nearby Colosseum. That they had uncovered such a deeply buried, humongous area (several square city blocks, at least) with such care and assiduousness, was flabbergasting. Most of the tour was enriched by yet another downpour of rain which mercifully ended just as the we were being cut loose to roam the Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum on our own.
The sky was still gray and made for a very moody backdrop for the pictures around the Palatine. I walked, half drenched, dancing around the shores of the massive puddles that had formed and made my way through the grounds, taking six pictures of nearly everything. Most of the ruins were half collapsed shells of their former grandeur, but they were still semi-recognizable as buildings, aqueducts and monuments. It was all very strange, beautiful and striking. After taking nearly 128 megabytes of photos, I fled the Palatine and headed back to the hostel. Four hours of guided tours and countless 2,000 year old relics was more than enough for one day of brain drain.
The next day, it started raining within seconds after I left the hostel and it continued to rain on and off the entire day. My first objective was the Pantheon. The original structure was build in 27 BC and has been gutted repeatedly by popes and emperors, but it’s still standing and looking cool. The dome of the Pantheon is considered to be the most important achievement of ancient Roman architecture and looking at it from directly below, you can’t fathom how those guys figured out how to build the thing without it caving in. Actually, you can’t stand directly below the center of the dome as it is wide open, so the rain comes right through, making a huge puddle in the middle of the Pantheon’s beautiful marble floor which is roped off for our safety. I’m sure the floor gets pretty slick when it rains, but it just seemed so anti-Italian to go to such measures in the pursuit of public safety. Eventually I concluded that they must have started to block the area off only after about 187 Americans, slipped, fell and threatened to sue.
After the Pantheon and a heaping cup of gelato, I headed to the world’s smallest country; Vatican City. Mussolini, of all people, gave the Pope full sovereignty over Vatican City in 1929. It has a post office, a newspaper, a radio station, a train station and the whole place is protected by an army of Swiss guards. All this for an area that is barely over 250,000 square yards. You are thoroughly searched, frisked, scanned, x-rayed and God knows what else before you can enter the Vatican. I caused a lot of trouble at the entrance with the numerous pockets of my jacket holding about a dozen metallic and/or electronic items. It took about five minutes for me to empty all of my pockets, demonstrate that none of my electronics were blow-upable or otherwise lethal and reload everything. After that, I headed straight for Saint Peter’s Basilica.
I don’t think I have ever seen such a huge, man-made, open expanse of indoor space that wasn’t built to house four jumbo jets in my life. The Basilica is over 200 yards from front to back and at least, oh let’s say, 20 stories tall at the peak of the dome. There are beautiful frescos, statues and shit everywhere you look and if the Basilica isn’t enough of mental deep-fry for you, there’s also the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel that have enough precious art and treasures to spark off a fatal bout of The Louvre Effect. You can pay four euros to climb to the top of the main dome, but not only did I learn my lesson about dome climbing back in Florence, the point was moot anyhow as I actually succeeded in killing my camera battery while I was still on the floor of the Basilica. I took maybe 20-30 pictures in the Pantheon and perhaps another 10 or 15 outside Vatican City, otherwise I killed the entire battery just in Saint Peter’s alone. It was that cool in there. When you take into account that I had been through enough old, beautiful, massive churches, cathedrals and basilicas on my six month journey to fill four lifetimes, having Saint Peter’s drop my jaw so far down that I had to physically shut it with my hand is a testament to how spectacular the place is.
The interior of Saint Peter’s was very dim, due to the fact that it relies primarily on natural light from its windows for illumination and the overcast conditions outside severely limited the luminosity inside. While this is very gnarly to see in person, taking suitable photos is impossible. No flash on earth is strong enough to illuminate that gaping space and it was so weakly lit that hand-held, long exposure shots were totally out of the question. Tripods are not allowed in the Basilica, so you are pretty much screwed unless you buy a very expensive souvenir photo book, which is probably the ulterior motive behind the tripod ban.
My third day in Rome was reserved for general roaming and exploration. The sun was consistently shining for the first time all week and despite having only slept a scant five hours, its rays made me feel funky and energized.
I jump-started my aimless roaming with a visit to the very over-rated Circus Maximus, where early Roman chariot races were held. These days it’s just an oval-shaped park with a few pitiable ruins at one end, where people walk their dogs. (Amazing how indifferent I’ve become to anything less than freakishly awesome, first-rate ruins, isn’t it?) Then I crossed the Tiber River into the cramped, medieval Trastevere neighborhood. I got lost several times in the hills of Trastevere, but unlike the blaring, frightening streets across the river, Trastevere’s surroundings were so quiet, green and quaint that I didn’t make a serious attempt to get out until my stomach demanded attention. After acquiring a very tasty snack comprised of a pita, with tomato sauce, parsley and mushrooms, I walked along the river, past Vatican City and picturesque Saint Angelo’s Castle before crossing over to check out the bustling Piazza del Popolo. Right about this point my feet started to give out and I realized that I had ridden my sunshine high for all that it was worth and an extravagant nap was in order.
Rome is one of the granddaddy destinations of Europe. It’s expensive, unpleasantly crowded and very stressful depending on how comfortable you feel about lunatics on scooters buzzing past you at 30 MPH, six inches from your toes. However, there are few places in the world where you will see so many bug-eyed, amazing things all in the same metropolitan area. Watch out for hustlers and gypsy children, otherwise prepare to be astounded.