04 September 2008 | Rome, Italy
First mate Ziggy MacKenzie
Rome wasn't built in a day and you can't really see it in less than a year (to do it justice), but if you only had two days, here are some things to note:
1. Pick your spots. We perused a tourist map and chose to see: the Vatican, Vatican Museum, Coliseum, Trevi Fountain, Forum, Spanish Steps and Pantheon. Lots to see in two days, but we made it happen seeing all but the Vatican & Museum on the first day. The subways are great - only 2 lines A and B. As Connor noted, they only have 2 lines as every time they excavate a new area, they stumble across the remnants of history and turn the subway line into an archeological dig.
2. If you have to see a lot in a few days, take tours. After our visit to the Coliseum, we crossed the street to the Palatine Hill, one of the Seven Hills of Rome. Originally where Romulus settled, the hill became the home to the emperors and as each emperor ruled, they extended their territory. Nero, a bit of an egomaniac, extended it through half of what is modern day Rome, by burning the homes of the citizens and rebuilding it to meet his crazy version of an emperor's life. (To give you a little history, Rome was named after Romulus, who with his twin brother, was set afloat down the river Tiber and picked up along the shore by a wolf - or what translates also as prostitute, but the Italians prefer wolf. Rescued by the wolves, but raised by a local family, it was later discovered that Romulus and Remus were the children of emperors. Romulus occupied the Palatine hill, Remus another hill, and like typical brothers they fought over whom the city should be named after. But that really didn't matter, since Romulus had his brother killed and thus ended the argument.)
3. The quality of the tour guide makes a huge difference - our first guide, Roberto, added humour into our tour of the Coliseum, but lacked some of the nuances of the English native tongue, although he did a wonderful job correcting my pronunciation of Michaelangelo (not pronounced like Michael Jackson, I was told, but Meekelangelo). Anthony from New Zealand took us through the Palatine Hill and filled our ears with his passion for Roman history and architecture. We stood on the throne where citizens came before the reigning emperor to ask a question to which they did not know the answer, which ranged from yes to death and somewhere in between. We saw the site commemorating Romulus as the early emperor and saw the home of Augustine which had just opened months before.
4. Wish for rain when you visit the Pantheon, a pagan temple commissioned in 27BC and rebuilt after a fire in 117 and 125AD. Atop the rotunda is an opening, the eye, and when it rains the people of Rome flock to it so watch the water wash over the 2000 year old marble floors and drain through the holes in the floor. It was a remarkable site.
5. Have coins ready when you get to the Trevi Fountain for legend has it if you throw a coin and drink from its water, you will return to Rome. Most tourists throw in 10-20 cents and in the course of a day, they collect $3000EU donated to help the homeless. Neptune sits atop the fountain and below him the settled and rough oceans sit below.
6. Set an alarm and get there early. For the first time on our trip we set an alarm - who knew other than Connor that you can set an alarm on an ipod? We left the boat at 6am, took a bus, a train and 2 subways to the Vatican. Upon arriving to meet a tour group we set our eyes on the line forming outside of the Museum, for on the last Sunday of every month the entrance to the Vatican Museum is free and over 100,000 people lined up to see THE most famous site, the Sistine Chapel. As much as we wanted to spend time with our guide Anthony, we couldn't imagine lining up for 2 hours. So, we sent John on a rekkie (recognizance trip) upon which he was invited to join a tour a mere 100 feet from the beginning of the 5000 person line up and pay 25EU for the adults/free for the kids for a tour of the museum. Our jaded souls told us this couldn't be true, but we decided to risk it and were greatly rewarded. Our tour guide, Jim, from Grand Rapids Michigan was a theology and art history major who had lived in Rome for over 4 years and toured the Vatican and Museum over 800 times and he made every moment worth it, mixing art with history, religion, mythology, architecture, politics and archeology. It was fabulous.
7. Be prepared to be awed. The Vatican Museum houses over 11,000 pieces and is overwhelming. Jim took us outside, sat us in a plaza and told us the history behind why the Vatican is where it is, the significance behind St Peters Square obelisk (where Peter is buried) and a little about the actual principality of the Vatican, the smallest in the world behind Monaco and Lichtenstein. The Vatican has its own EU currency and postage system as well as an army, the famous Swiss Guard. Each year 120 new guards are picked from the applicants who must: be Swiss, between the ages of 18-25, speak five languages, Roman Catholic and have completed military service and then receive special training. Don't let those funny looking clown costumes fool you! Jim delighted us in the stories behind Michaelangelo receiving the commission to complete the ceiling. His rivals at the time felt threatened by his skill and arrogance and one, upon being asked by the Pope to paint the ceiling and figuring out it would take a team of artists over 10 years to complete the vaulted ceiling, (politely) declined but suggested Michaelangelo to get him out of the competitive art scene. Turns out Michaelangelo didn't even consider himself a painter and considered carving marble sculptures the true work of artists. In fact he had never even painted in the frescoe style before starting the ceiling. He was asked to paint saints on the ceiling, but after starting and in frustration, destroying his first attempt, struck a bargain with Pope Julius II - "I'll paint it if you let me choose the subject matter and promise I will be free upon my completion to return to what I love, marble sculptures. Deal." He worked alone for 4 years, building the scaffolding, lugging the materials up to the top and contorting himself into a twisted figure, began what is truly perfection. In the frescoe style which requires working with wet plaster he only completed about an 8X8 inch section a day and for days would remain on the top of the scaffolding, sleeping atop. We took time to revel in the beauty of the most famous section - the creation of man, the famous finger of god reaching out to Adam. [By the way, it appears that there is something anatomically incorrect about Adam in Michaelangelo's rendition - can you figure it out? (Connor could, the first visitor in over 6 months to get it right, but go figure that Cliffy Claven stats boy would know!). Submit your answers in the comment section and, Steve Southwood, no googling the answers.]
8. Be prepared not to take pictures in the Sistine Chapel, not for the seemingly obvious reasons that pictures can damage the frescoes, but as a result of a rights agreement between the Vatican and Nippon, the Japanese company who paid for the restoration of the ceiling. Nippon didn't know quite what it would take when the restoration started in 1980; heck if takes 4 years to paint, how long would it take to clean it up? Well, hundreds of people, 10 years and $180 million. In return, Nippon asked for rights to all photos and souvenirs for 50 years.
9. Dress appropriately to enter the Vatican - shoulders covered and no short shorts. In the largest church in the world, you could spend days viewing the art works (it took 80 years to finish the interior). As it was a Sunday, mass was being said and we were told that the Pope was in Rome and would bless the crowds in St Peters Square at noon. Seems it was a rumour for he was still hanging at his summer home in Castel Gondolfo, but through modern technology, they brought him to the square broadcast on giant flat screen TVs. John and the kids climbed to the top of St Peters basilica, the highest point in Rome today and for ever, for Rome has agreed there will never be a taller building in the city. They took an elevator up half way, walked the remaining 320 steps up viewing the city and trecked the 551 steps down.
We finished our day taking a bus (as the subway was out of order) and suffered the crowds and heat. They aren't kidding when they say it is crowded in August and, once again, it was soooooo hot. We returned to Windancer hot, tired and thoroughly awed by the beauty and wonders of Rome. You can't turn a corner without stumbling across another marvel. Thank goodness we threw those coins into the Trevi Fountain, since the city is beckoning for us to return.