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Rome-ing

Author: Lonesome Traveler
Date of Trip: June 2003

Day One and Two – Arriving and Romeing ‘Til I’m All Poped Out

Tuesday: The interminable journey finally ended in the Eternal City. After the inferno of the flight, the purgatory of passing time in airports, and the limbo of lost hours, my first impression of a rapidly darkening but full moonlit Rome was a cross between the heavenly and the not so—with the latter, perhaps, predominating. Was it the Eternal or the Infernal City?

The place bustled, even at 8:00 p.m. when I arrived. The streets appeared to be the venue of an endless modern chariot race with at least twenty scooters leading the charge from every stoplight. Their insistent buzzing made me feel as if I had entered a hive of perpetually angry bees. The taxi finally disgorged me at my four-star, six-night home, the Starhotel Michelangelo; just a block from the Vatican walls. It was as well appointed as any Motel 6, except that the shower stall was designed for someone far more anorexic than I. But later, as I stepped into the street, the dome of St Peter’s filled the sky, and all familiar impressions vanished. I ate at a small local diner, spaghetti, of course, and collapsed—but only after I got back to the hotel.

Wednesday: Ten hours of sleep and a cool, bright blue sky levitated the heavenly side of the picture. Even the scooters took on the aura of whining poodles rather than snarling wolves. About a fourth of the riders are females, most wearing dresses or skirts for the workplace. Speaking of females, many of the pedestrian ones are short and stocky–and not all of them are nuns. Ordinarily, I don’t look down on women, but here I can’t help it—and I’m only 5’ 6.” They appear to be either willowy or rectangular, nothing in between.

About 8:45 I made my way through St. Peter’s Square (actually, it’s more a circle) on my way to the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel. A large crowd had gathered, and I learned that the Pope was expected to pour forth his blessing around 10:30. I debated momentarily, but the Chapel won out. The entrance is about a half mile away; and since signs were few, I asked directions of guards and police several times. I arrived at the Museum to find it and the Chapel closed. I found it a little strange that not one of those officials knew (or didn’t bother to say) that perhaps the number one tourist attraction in Rome wasn’t open. Several hundred other visitors were just as confused, as they were milling around like ants whose crumbs have been swept away. I’m getting inklings that there are vast differences between American “know how” and “know when” and Italian “so what.” I suspect I’m going to have to do some attitude adjustments.

I made my way back to St. Peters where a few thousand chairs were set up and found an empty one near the back. Three fourths of the square was still open with a few thousand tourists and pilgrims scattered around. This huge square reminded me somewhat of a drain as it slopes toward the center. Sitting there, I had a vision of a mighty earthquake and us tumbling in our thousands toward the middle and screaming down into the bottomless pit—no doubt a residual echo from my fundamentalist Protestant upbringing reminding me of the once-taught belief that only a thin shell separates the Papacy from the fires of hell.

While waiting, I examined the four-inch square stones that pave the area. In the grooves between them, little tufts of grass were growing, only a few fractions tall, of course, as passing feet constantly pruned them. The poor things were pushing their way through cigarette butts and other tourist detritus, and I was thinking there must be some lesson here—life and death, sacred and profane, artificial and real—but both you and I will be spared all that, as just then the Pope showed up in a Humvee. At least it looked like one—a large, open jeep-like vehicle, which, much to my disappointment, the Pope wasn’t driving. It made a circuit between the barriers, so that most of the crowd got a rather good close up. There seemed to be very little security, a few people with him in the vehicle and a couple trotting alongside. He passed about forty feet away from me, and most of the crowd rushed the barrier—in my dignity I merely climbed my chair. All this time the whole spectacle was being shown on four large portable screens. Cheers, hat waving, people looking stoned out in ecstasy, the Pope’s hand lifting in blessing: I’m not a believer, of course, but still, could I be in his position and take myself seriously? I suppose, to live with myself, I would have to. I didn’t stay for the whole ceremony: long readings and welcomes, mostly in Italian but some in English. Many groups were recognized, especially schools; but about halfway through a delayed but acute case of jet lag hit, and I made my way back to the hotel.

After a long siesta I returned to the Square in the late afternoon and entered the church. In sheer size it is quite stunning; however, it is not an intimate experience. Everything seems to be designed to cut the mere mortal down to size. Outsized statues of popes and saints line the walls, most rather stilted and formalized, a hand usually outstretched in blessing. There is, however, one remarkable exception. In a corner sits one of the world’s treasures, Michelangelo’s early Pieta. Dwarfed by the architecture and the other statues, it nevertheless towers over everything else. With the delicate, beautiful face of an angel and the shoulders of a linebacker, an impossibly young Mary cradles the lifeless but expressive body of Jesus. Somehow, sorrow and loss exude from stone. I found it difficult to tear myself away and went back several times—and will, I’m sure, do so again. How stone can be worked to call forth such beauty and feeling is a mystery for which I can only be grateful. Michelangelo, by the way, excused Mary’s youthful appearance by her sexual purity; he equated virginity with long life and health. He lived to be eighty-nine at a time when such a long life was a rarity, and there is no evidence that he ever had a sexual union—so, who knows?

I took an elevator to the dome and listened for a while to a mass conducted down on the floor with an adult and a children’s choir. I had the dome walkway almost to myself, and I felt like an angel, albeit a dubious one, listening in from on high. St. Peters is magnificent, but on the roof, up close, a certain shabbiness becomes apparent. Away from the pomp and gild of the interior, there is an aura of age and decay. The building seems impossibly old, and perhaps a little tired and out of touch—or maybe that was just me.

A last look at the Pieta, an undistinguished supper at the hotel, then a short walk to a café for a decaf nightcap, a stroll around the Vatican walls, and I was off to bed. Tomorrow, it’s the Chapel, finally.

Day Two — Ralph and Mike

I slept poorly: too tired, too much coffee, and too long a siesta. Still I was up fairly early, across St. Peter’s and in line for the Sistine Chapel by 8:15, a half hour before the opening. Luckily I was there that early as only a million people were ahead of me rather than a billion. Remarkably, once the line started moving, it took only about twenty minutes to squirt us, like a river of motley-colored mustard, into the Vatican Museum. The Museum is, well, a museum; that is to say it is mostly filled with junk—though I would be happy to own some of the pieces. The star of this trove is the Laocoon, an ancient Greek sculpture dug up in Michelangelo’s time, and which impressed even him. It is quite a piece—agony in stone.

Getting to the Sistine Chapel itself can be a tease as it is necessary to negotiate innumerable rooms, and enough up and down staircases to confuse and ultimately frustrate at least this visitor. Just before the Chapel itself, the way passes through several rooms that were frescoed by Raphael at the same time that Michelangelo was doing the ceiling. Ralph was quite the charmer and a notorious ladies’ man who was liked by everybody but Mike (or Mick). Of course, Mike didn’t seem to care for hardly anybody that much. Ralph died at just thirty-seven—remember Mike’s theory on sexual abstinence and long life? Maybe it only seemed as if he lived to be eighty-nine.

On to the chapel: it would be impossible to be disappointed by it, of course. Well, maybe not: a subsequent pope felt the treatment of the subject matter was more suitable to a bathhouse than to a chapel. Fortunately, he died after only eighteen months in office and before he could do anything rash. I simply could not take it all in. It needs hours of contemplation, preferably spread over a period of days. And I couldn’t shut out the people. I’m always a trifle uneasy in a crowd, and standing (or sitting on benches along the walls) shoulder to shoulder with a constantly shifting mass of bodies brought me perilously close to anxiety. Here is my dream for next time: clear everybody out, give me a motorized recliner, and let me maneuver around to my heart’s content—with an occasional nap not out of the question—or is that too much to ask?

I won’t bore you with any kind of description, but here are a couple of finger facts you may not get any place else. One of the more obscure figures on the ceiling is giving “the fig,” the Roman equivalent of “the finger.” I looked but couldn’t find it; perhaps binoculars would help. Michelangelo was probably just making a statement, telling the Pope what he thought of the assignment. In our day, God reaching out to touch Adam’s finger has become the icon by which the whole ceiling is recognized. Ironically, Adam’s finger is no longer Michelangelo’s work; a large crack appeared, and a later artist had to replaster and repaint the digit.

After my now usual siesta, I walked down to the Castel Sant’Angelo, a fortress that was the last refuge of popes in trouble. Like most castles it was gloomy and drafty, but from the top there was a magnificent view of most of Rome. After another brief visit to St. Peter’s (there was a crowd around the Pieta, so I left in a sulk), I had dinner and returned to the hotel and turned on the television. The juxtaposition of these two things, ancient Rome and the current news, is beginning to turn me slightly schizophrenic. All day I immerse myself in the past, but when I return to my room and turn on the TV, the here and now suddenly and rudely asserts itself. Having no one to bounce any of this off of, I’m beginning to lose track of when and where I am—and maybe the “who” is slipping a little, too. Even my dreams are becoming a strange mixture of the old and the new.

Day Three — Panting for the Pantheon

I bought a shuttle ticket today that would allow me to get off and on at a dozen or so of the more popular tourist stops, but a large anti-government demonstration botched that plan, as the buses couldn’t get through. Instead I substituted a guided walking tour through classical Rome, but peeled off after a couple of lectures at Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon. I’m just not cut out for trotting along after someone with an umbrella or a ribbon on a stick who is dispensing misinformation by at least the cupful. For instance, this guide talked about how Ralph and Mick were such good friends when Mick clearly stated in his letters that he though Ralph was out to get his commissions. Of course, Michelangelo thought most people were out to get him. How remarkable is it that such an ugly, ill-tempered, whining, paranoid little runt (I’m exaggerating—some) created more artistic beauty than any other man—it gives one hope. Perhaps if he had occasionally indulged in a little Raphaeling, he would have been a nicer person—but maybe less of an artist.

After my desertion I returned to the Pantheon and the Fountain. Of all the buildings so far, I’m most taken by the Pantheon. Partly it’s the dome and that opening, but mostly it’s a sense of harmony that pervades the place. The Trevi Fountain is beautiful, but I forgot to throw in my coins. I ate pizza at the Navona Piazza (or was it piazza at the Navona Pizza?), and then took a taxi to the hotel and my siesta.

Late evening, and I took a long walk back to my afternoon’s haunts. I got harmonized again at the Pantheon (put the Pieta in there, and I would set up camp), forgot to throw coins in the Fountain for the third time, then set out for the Spanish Steps. These Steps seem to be a happening place where nothing much happens. Among others, Byron and Shelley hung out there, and it is quite the place for romance—at least, so they say: Mick and I wouldn’t know. I was reading about a church in the area where a certain lady saint’s body is buried; which is fine, but the next part got to me: her head is buried in another church about 60 miles away in Siena. I don’t know about you or the topless lady, but that doesn’t seem quite right to me: the heart; a lung or two, maybe; the liver perhaps; or even a big toe—but come on, let me keep my head; I lost it enough in life.

As an aside, the place is called the Spanish Steps because the Spanish embassy used to be there.

Day Four — Forum or Againstum

Today I saw so many ruins I’m beginning to feel like one, especially my legs. I took in—or made a valiant effort to—the Coliseum, the Palatine Hill, and the Forum. One thing that strikes me about these kinds of sites is the contrast between the ancient ruins and the incredibly cheap (in the most pejorative sense of the word) wares sold in the souvenir stands. Certainly they are no worse than the ones at, say Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco; but to me they strike a much more jarring note. It seems that there should be some things that aren’t part of the general circus—maximus or not. On the other hand, I suppose that everybody needs to make a Euro.

The Coliseum is about as familiar a landmark as there is. What most pictures don’t show are the throngs of people and the location in downtown Rome with its constant traffic. The façade of this amazing building is about as imposing as it gets, but I was somewhat surprised at the size of the interior. While not exactly intimate, it does seem a bit cramped. Possibly it’s those towering walls, or maybe our modern gargantuan stadiums have spoiled us. By the way, my guidebook tells me that no Christians were likely thrown to the lions at this venue—the Circus Maximus crowd was more into that kind of thing.

The Palatine Hill is a vast, almost completely ruined palace complex. While there are a few walls, a large sunken garden or amphitheater, and a few restorations, it’s very hard to get a handle on what it all must have looked like. I wouldn’t skip it, but it might be good to lower one’s expectations, at least in terms of grandeur.

Ah, but the Forum! What a magnificent jumble of arches, columns, walls, temples, and assorted other ruins: standing, broken, fallen, leaning—and located in a sloping little valley in the middle of downtown Rome. The only thing that might be said against it is that, perhaps, it looks too much like the set for a Raiders of the Lost Ark type of movie. If it weren’t so real, it would look faux. However, I was in my element; I love ruins, the more so as I get older and come to resemble one. Give me four roofless walls and a dirt or grass floor over almost any intact edifice—the Pantheon excepted.

Later, back at the hotel, I made arrangements for a trip to Naples and Pompeii on Sunday—my last day.

Day Five — Ashes, Ashes, All Fall Down

I wanted to see something of Italy besides Rome and thought that the one hundred and fifty mile trip to Naples and Pompeii would provide a nice day trip. I certainly hadn’t “done” Rome, but I had made a start; and I had a hankering to see the countryside and another town. Because of transportation logistics and time, I broke down and took a guided tour. We left Rome around 7:30 a.m. Outside the city the terrain at times reminded me of northern California, treeless, rolling hills turning green with springtime. In other places it was more of an eastern U.S. motif with deciduous trees just beginning to leaf out. At other times it was just itself, slightly foreign, but not exotically so.

About halfway to Naples, we passed the Full Monty Casino, Italy’s most notorious gambling establishment where for entertainment strippers disrobe to the accompaniment of detonating bombs—wait, wait; I’m confusing that with Montecassino, the bombed-out Benedictine monastery where robed monks chant and pray—a natural mistake. This large, white complex of buildings is quite a sight on quite a site, sitting on a fortress-like rugged hill with snow-covered mountains in the background. It has been completely rebuilt as it was held by the Germans in WWII and bombed to smithereens by the Allies.

Naples, according to my limited observation, consists entirely of apartment buildings and traffic. Apparently there’s a city ordinance that requires the citizens to have at least one piece of laundry hanging from their balconies at all times—or maybe it’s their flag. The setting is magnificent: Vesuvius looms in the background, and the Mediterranean, encasing the Isle of Capri, sparkles in the foreground. There are steep hills; the city is somewhat like Sausalito, a Californian hillside, bayside town, on steroids. Vesuvius, while a hulking, slightly malevolent presence, is actually a rather ordinary pile of dirt. It resembles a giant carbuncle more than anything else, scabbed over but still unhealed.

We finally rolled into Pompeii around 12:30 and had lunch at a no star restaurant. If this establishment could make it into a guidebook, it would have to be represented by a black hole. I sat with two delightful Japanese ladies, a mother and daughter. They spoke barely passable English, and my Japanese consists of sayonara, but we somehow managed to exchange views on the state of the world, our cultural differences, education, travel, and grandchildren.

Pompeii is a definite “don’t miss it if you’re in the neighborhood, or even if you’re not” kind of place. Six miles from the volcano, it was a trading center of some 20,000 souls. Some two thousand of them were re-souled when Vesuvius blew its cool in August of A.D. 79. Much of the city has been excavated, and the ruins (my kind of town) are well preserved; at least the streets and first floors. Twenty-five feet of ash collapsed the roofs and second stories. If our guide’s site selections were any indication, every other building was either a brothel or a bakery. By the way, how old were you when you learned that a brothel isn’t an establishment that serves light soups to ill people? Luckily, I found out a few weeks before I left; otherwise it might have gotten embarrassing: “Excuse me, Mr. Guide, why did the Pompeiians eat so much bread and zuppa?”

By far the most poignant remains were the plaster casts made from people who were found in the positions where the ash felled them. Some lie in a fetal position, others are sprawled out as if caught running. For me, the most affecting was a small boy huddled, as if in a doorway, head down and arms hugging drawn up knees—resigned, it seems, to his fate and a future of millions of strangers contemplating his last moments. Don’t miss Pompeii: it’s haunted, but in a good way by ordinary people who were going about their daily lives.

Back in Rome after thirteen and a half hours, on an impulse, I hopped off the bus (actually, I disembarked with as much dignity as my stiff legs would allow) at Navona Square and took a farewell walk to the Pantheon and Trevi Fountain—where I finally threw in my coin and made a wish. Back at the hotel I packed for my 3:30 a.m. wake up call and my Roman goodbye.

Home Again

The flight back seemed to take at least a month longer than the one out, but I’m home. Here are a few impressions: The whole trip was a joy, but two things stand out in particular—I’m sure you’ve guessed both. The Pieta, of course: its evocation of sorrow, divine and human, is unsurpassed. Then there is the Pantheon, almost ugly, certainly undistinguished, on the outside, but with an interior possessing a serenity that no other man made structure ever has—at least for me. It borders on the mystical. I can’t analyze it; it started out as a pagan temple and is now a Catholic church. But, once inside, even with the crowds, peace pervades.

So, there you have it. What more could any trip, symbolic or otherwise, hope to provide than some sort of balance between serenity, joy, and sorrow? And to those two places I would add a third: Pompeii. On any kind of journey, it never hurts (too much) to be reminded of our mortality.

The Lonesome Traveler

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