One of my most favorite cities in the world is Rome. I know, I can hear the reverberations of the “are you kidding me”, “are you crazy”, and “anywhere but there”!!
But it is true. I love Rome. Roma. Maybe it harkens back to the whole Sophia Loren love child incident (see the post an Ironic memorial—and yes I know she is Neapolitan, but Italian she is) or the whole adoption issue (see the post Sylvia Kay and yes, adoption gets its mileage worth of blame ☺)
It is a huge city. A noisy city. A dirty city. A crowded city. A very chaotic city. And no, I don’t think one can apply organized chaos to Rome, but I love it just the same. From the animated residents; the name calling, the shouting, the finger gestures, the kissing, the gesticulations of hands and arms as intense conversations abound….—to the wafting aroma of garlic and basil wending throughout the labyrinths of nooks and alleyways in the summer, to the darting vespers that are indeed like annoying wasps….I love it all.
I have been to Rome 4 times throughout my life with the longest visit lasting almost 3 weeks. Never enough time. But I have been known to tire and cut the visit short. I blame it on sensory overload. Rome will do that to a person. Sights, smells, sounds, touching, feeling…it has it all—in tremendous excess. A glorious amount of excess.
For all of its tremendous history, the birthplace of republic governments, it is today, a bit rough around the edges. It is no Paris—the epitome of refinement and decorum. No, Rome is explosive with emotion—good and bad. And I love it all.
There is one trip in particular that stands out in my memory—it was the summer following the death of Pope John Paul II. I had mourned his death so very much that Spring. I, along with an entire world, had watched the once energetic and vibrant Pope slip into frail old age and gracefully leave us. If you read my post on the Passport fiasco you remember that my passport at the time was not up to date and I could not personally go to say “good-bye”.
It was the intense attention on Rome that Spring which got my dad to thinking. My son, at the time, was 15 and Dad thought that while he was still able, he’d like to take my son, his only grandchild, on a special trip. He and my step-mom got my aunt and me in the bargain as well. And somehow, for some reason, Rome seemed to be the point of destination. Wonder where he got that idea 🙂
The trip was a comedy of errors to be sure. My dad at the time was still “walking” if that is what you call a snail’s pace shuffle. My son, a ball of adolescent hormones, my step- mom probably wishing she’d stayed home (especially after she tripped over the corner of the Pantheon sending my son to find medical help but more on that later), my aunt, wondering what she was doing hanging out with this odd bunch and then there was me, wondering what’d I’d gotten us all into.
I had gone on line, well before our trip date, and made reservations for us to go on a small, semi-private tour of, what I call, the bowels of the Vatican. You have to request an “opportunity” for the Catacombs underneath the Vatican. You have to list all those in your party, your country of origin, ages, birthdays, language, your place of “residence” while in Rome, phone numbers, etc. Submit the form and hope you’re accepted. This trip, we were lucky. We had to show up at the left side gate to St. Peter’s at a specified time—if you’re late at all, you can forget the trip. We were to print off the “ticket acceptance” and show it to the Swiss Guard at the gate.
It was our first full day in Rome. We were staying but a few streets over from the Vatican. I knew that my son needed to wear long pants when we went to St. Peters just as my aunt, my step-mom and myself needed to have shoulders covered. I knew this. But it was mid July. Rome in mid-July is a sauna. The temperature was in the upper 90s our entire time in Italy. It was hot and it was humid.
That morning, worrying about getting all of us up, fed and out the hotel door, making certain that my snail father would/could keep a quick step as we huffed our way to the Vatican, it totally slipped past my stressed mind that my son had put on shorts—long shorts mind you, but shorts just the same.
We arrive at the left gate right on time. I feel so proud to be able to walk past the myriad of people, right up to a soldier of another time, and present my “golden ticket”. It was as if I had an appointment to see the Pope. In reality, it was a ticket to basically tour the basement, but to me, it was a moment in time that stood still.
The guard looked at the ticket, checked our passports and stepped aside allowing us to pass into a different dimension in time. Next we had to go to the office for the Catacombs. I’m just about to explode, I’m so excited and in total awe of this most surreal moment. Suddenly, without warning, jolted back to reality, the lady at the desk looks at my son, looks at me, and in Italian, proceeds to tell me NO!
“What?!” “What do you mean NO?!” “Your son is wearing shorts. Panic sets in and I suddenly think I’m going to be sick. There is no time to run back to the hotel. There is no time to find a store. NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
But by what I like to think was Divine intervention– the lady decides my son must be only 10 years old– she allows the long shorts. Thank God for his latent growth hormones! Our tour director greets us and immediately admonishes me for the shorts. I hang my head and acknowledge the faux paux and promise to say a multitude of Hail Mary’s (I’m not Catholic but at this point I’ll do anything for anyone!)
We enter into the area of the Pope’s tombs by a side door. We slip past the tourists viewing the beautiful array of tombs and sarcophagi. We descend down and down—leaving behind the crowds of tourists, down past the tombs of century’s worth of popes. Down to where the air is cool and the light is dim. The sounds of the massive numbers of tourist above us, up in St. Peters, is but a muffled breath. We find ourselves suddenly in a maze of stone and dirt alleyways. Niches line the walls, some are open, bodiless, while others are still sealed and marked with various designs—our guide points out that some of the symbols are pagan and some Christian. Some of the niches are marked by ash and charcoal—thousands of years old ash and charcoal that looks as if someone just took a burnt piece of charcoal out of a grill and smeared it on the wall—amazing!
The alleyway opens and several elaborate “rooms” come into view. These were burial sites for families who had money. Mosaic tiles, still beautifully brilliant and colorful cover the floors as elaborate paintings grace the walls. Names are etched into the walls informing all who pass by, of whom, what family, is buried here and there. I am simply amazed.
We wend our way to the end of the excavation of the catacombs. The culmination of research and digging—the culmination of those of us who are the “pilgrims of the basement” has appeared before us. It is the tomb of Saint Peter. A heavy hush falls over all of us. The sheer magnitude of what we are seeing, what we are standing before is almost impossible to process.
There are extensive stories about the tomb of St. Peter. Why the basilica is built where it is built. It’s proximity to the Circus of Nero. The existence of St. Peter’s tomb and how the many little shrines came into being, eventually growing into what we see today as St. Peter’s Basilica– two thousand years in the making is a story worth investigating. I will leave that to the history books but you should take some time to read about the history of the Basilica, as it is most fascinating.
Our tour guide tells us of the “hallowed” ground on which we stand and that we should all take a moment of silence for prayer and/ or reflection. We are all in awe; there are 4 other people with us besides my family. There are tears and such tremendous reverence that the air is almost heavy and difficult to breath– this important moment is suddenly broken by my father who begins having one of his oh so famous coughing attacks. He fumbles for a cough drop…the sound of his tearing into the cellophane wrapper of the cough drop, reverberating off this cave like area, absolutely crushes the moment for us all. Embarrassing. First the shorts, and now my dad, who is obviously not impressed by a stack of bones in a cave….. UGH…
Part II of the Vatican:
I did manage to pack two small American flags. My son and I carried these with us to the tomb of John Paul II. It was before they had his tomb complete so he was interned in a temporary grave in St. Peters. The line was long but we waited our turn. As we approached his tomb, there were many kneeling. The guards were doing their best moving along the crowd. I asked, or actually gestured, if we might be able to place our flags on the tomb. He nods. Ours were the only two American flags amongst as sea of flowers and flags. I felt happy.
I won’t go into the Coliseum in 100-degree heat. I won’t go into the day trip down to Naples and Pompeii—gawking a poor people frozen in time, in the moment of a horrific death, certainly not my cup of tea but oddly Dad thinks this is great. The 3-day trip to Florence is for another post as I met and made a life long friend there in Florence. A sister soul mate I was so fortunate to find…..
As I told you we were staying near the Vatican. We spent a good bit of time walking up and down the Borgo Pio. A really touristy strip until you make your way down towards the end of the street, away from the Vatican. Two special things happened to us on this street.
We wandered into a small store. Grazie a Cielo. It was an artist co-op of sorts. There was a kind priest/padre working the store. It was so hot that he had his collar unbuttoned and the sweat poured down his face. The artwork was done from various missions throughout the world. Christmas ornaments, wooden carvings, rosaries of every size and description, etc .,with all proceeds going back to the various missions.
We attempted talking with the priest but he spoke no English and we spoke no Italian. It is amazing, however, how we did manage to communicate. There is a great deal to be said for tone and gestures. His name was Padre Andrea. He was greatly moved when he realized that my son was buying all of his friends back home small rosaries. My son asked Padre Andrea to please bless the rosaries. Without understanding one another’s language, however, we could join together in prayer—so universal. He blessed the rosaries and he blessed my son. I was greatly moved.
Further down the street we found a wonderful restaurant. Normally the Borgo Pio is not a place one wants to eat. The top end of the street, closest to the Vatican, is crowded with cheap tourist traps. However, down on the opposite end of this ancient of streets, is one of my most favorite restaurants in the entire world. Il Papalino. It is home to the best waiter I have ever known—Antonio. Antonio is my age, mid 50s and he’s worked at Il Papalino for almost 28 years, his entire working career at this one restaurant. He took such good care of us. He is shy and unassuming yet flits about taking care of the throngs of diners with steely precision.
Every time I’ve been back to Rome, I make a beeline for Il Papalino and my dear Antonio. He always remembers me and asks “how is the boy who loves Coca Cola” (my son). In the evenings, once the throngs of tourists have departed the area, the street, becomes a family atmosphere as the local residents come out to walk their dogs and push strollers full of children. Everyone seems to know one another as the locals come to eat, drink and laugh together. Antonio knows them all …but he also knows me. That makes me happy.
There are the morning walks down by the Tiber. As one descends the stairs, which leads down to the river walkway, there is no mistaking the stench of human urine that rises to hit those wishing to walk or run by the river, smack in the face. Rome has a large homeless population. I have seen more than my share of human and animal waste on the sidewalks, as well as people popping up out of dumpsters. Dumpsters, whose stench marks their presence long before they are seen. These dumpster divers are carrying discarded watermelon rinds.
I don’t think there is anything that is not covered in graffiti in Rome. When you first arrive in Rome you are overwhelmed with the graffiti, appalled that this most ancient of cities is so shamelessly defaced. However, after a few short hours in town, it all seems to meld into the massive mix of chaos known as Rome.
The history, the art, the monuments are all an amalgamation of Roman, Christian, Pagan, Renaissance wonders—a plethora for the senses…to realize that one is walking on the ground that Julius Creaser, Marc Anthony, saints Paul, Peter all traversed…it is difficult to comprehend.
There is, however, one most special “monument” that many tourists may miss. It is found up the steps at the far end of the Forum and the Capitoline hill. If you weren’t looking for it, you’d never know it was there. The Mamertime Prison. It is located on what is the side of a church.
It is in this ancient, old, cave-like cistern prison, which once housed the criminals of Rome, as well as the political prisoners. Political prisoners such as saints Peter and Paul. It is believed that Paul was actually held here just prior to his execution and that perhaps Peter had been here on several occasions. In 90 degree plus heat, it is a nice respite allowing time to sit for a quiet moment. But then the enormity of the fact that I was sitting on a carved out outcropping in the wall, the very area that Paul and Peter most likely sat/ slept overwhelmed my heart. It is from the cistern and spring, that it is still very much full of water, that Peter used to baptize the guards and fellow prisoners. It is dark, damp and very cave like. It is hard imagining a worse place to be held before one’s execution.
The most memorable of events, however, during this “family” trip was not a grand monument or museum. Nor was it the fact that I had had too much wine to drink this particular evening—it was rather that I should have visited the “ladies room” at the restaurant before we decide to walk back to the hotel.
We had had dinner at Il Papilino. It was a marvelous meal of Sea Bass, prepared tableside, complete with several bottles of good Roman Wine. We decided that Dad could walk the short distance through the alleyway, which connected the Borgo Pio to the street where our hotel was located rather than the hassle of a cab. Now mind you that while we were in Rome I felt perfectly safe. I felt safer in Rome then I have ever felt in my hometown of Atlanta. I have always felt safe in Rome, even when I was traveling with just one other female friend…no worries. My dad however, is old school and is not as Que sera sera as I tend to be.
My aunt and I are strolling along, full of good food and wine, listening to my step-mom retelling some marvelous story. My snail like father lags far behind and my son is hanging back with “Pops”. It is a perfect night… Rome, family, history, and magic. A group of young people is behind us, laughing holding hands, all equally satiated with the magical evening… We are all just using the alleyway to cut through to the other street.
Suddenly, we see my father darting past us as if he has been shot out of a starting block for the race of his life–my son in hot pursuit. My dad, it seems, has decided that these kids behind us are a group of hooligans—which they aren’t but you couldn’t tell this Octogenarian any different. He’s mad that we wont hurry along and decides to leave us eating his dust.
The insanity of what we were witnessing, an 80-year-old racing as if his life depended on it, followed by his 15-year-old grandson, fussing that the women would not “wise up” to the lurking danger from behind, was more than we could contain.
The 3 of us burst out laughing. And we continued laughing—belly laughing. Doubled over laughing. It was just a priceless spectacle to behold. You have to know my dad—Mr. Mole as we call him.
Do you know what happens to ladies of a particular age when they have consumed a great deal of liquid and have not been to the ladies room for a while? I was wearing a black sheaf dress and black sandals…suddenly there is a trickle. I’m laughing so hard and now telling my cohorts that things are about to get serious. They can’t believe it and are laughing as well at my plight when my aunt suddenly finds herself in the same predicament. Now there are two ladies laughing with trickles. I could take you to that very street corner in Rome to this day, the street corner I baptized with back-up help from my aunt. Needless to say, we threw those shoes away as they were a bit soggy once we got back to the hotel ☺
I have so many stories of Rome—too many to attempt to recall here. But may it be known that I love Rome. And obviously I fit right in.