Travel Theme: Benches

Ailsa’s travel theme this week at Where’s My Backpack? is a surprisingly thought-provoking one–benches.  Some people (like, apparently, Ailsa) find them intriguing and somewhat romantic.  I tend to overlook them.  Important life lesson to be had here: pay at-bloody-tention.

Belhurst Castle, Geneva NY.  The vast lawn behind the castle is full of greenery and planters and carefully appointed koi ponds.  And exactly one lone bench, facing eastward to meet the sunrise.

Good morning!

Good morning!

Meanwhile, at the Old City Hall in my beloved Boston, George fails to recognize the looming menace of a statue of a brass donkey as he sits on the cleared stone bench outside the landmark building.

Hey, pal. One of us was here first, and it wasn't you.

Hey, pal. One of us was here first, and it wasn’t you.

In Rome (or, you know, cities in general), anything can serve as a series of benches, depending on the mood of the crowd.  A view from the top of the Spanish Steps.

Because all those people need to sit *somewhere*.

Because all those people need to sit *somewhere*.

And in Florence, simple wooden benches serve as pews in the Chiesa de San Salvatore al Monte, a beautiful 15-th century church overlooking the Arno.  San Salvatore is largely overshadowed by its flashier neighbor, the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte, but it is no less lovely.  And since more people go to San Miniato, San Salvatore is much, much quieter, which can be an incredible luxury.

If you're looking for a place to sit and be self-reflective...

If you’re looking for a place to sit and be self-reflective…

Annnnnd…there is a gem of an amusement park close to my home.  Knoebel’s has been operating as an amusement park (albeit on a smaller scale) since 1926, and it is still family owned and offers free admission.  And?  It is awesome.  They have a Sky Ride that glides its riders up the side of a mountain and back down again; these are the bench seats from the top of the Sky Ride, deserted after an afternoon rain.

Welcome to Knoebel's in all its sylvan splendor.

Welcome to Knoebel’s in all its sylvan splendor.

Happy bench hunting!  Enjoy the travel theme.

About these ads

Travel Theme: Time

Ailsa’s travel theme this week at Where’s My Backpack is: time!  As in, how you visualize it and the passage thereof.  I dig these sorts of themes.  They’re so up for interpretation.

The picture below was taken in front of the Super 8 in Sturbridge, MA.  Why the owner bought this carriage is still a mystery, even to him.  He said, “I was just really, you know, drawn to it.  I had to have it.  Now I don’t know where else to put it.”  Fair enough.  Time has clearly had its way with the old girl, though I think it’s fair to say that despite the ravages of time (and weather, and carelessness, and probably raccoons) you can still see what a lovely carriage she must have been, once. The owner said he wanted to restore it at some point, though it would take a ton of pimping to fix this ride.  But who am I to harsh on his restorative ch’i?  Go for it!

This used to be grand.

This used to be grand.


The installation of the glass pyramid that serves as the main entrance to the Louvre made people INSANE with rage when it was first installed, but I dig it.  I know that now people are cool with it (for the most part), even though it took a while.  It’s difficult to argue with I.M. Pei‘s capacity for design, once you accept that he’s not going to subscribe to the notion that he has to design all 16th-19th century (12th century if you look at the foundations) neo-classico-baroque-renaissance-gothic curlicued French.  I love the juxtaposition of modern and not-so-much that shows the evolution of design sensibilities over time, not just next to one another randomly on a street but rather, incorporated into one functional building.  Awesome.

Dude, it's totally more than a prop in a Dan Brown movie.

Dude, it’s totally more than a prop in a Dan Brown movie.

This next photo is a passage of time double-whammy.  This lock was probably a hundred years old and so severely weathered that it’s beyond use; it is rusted shut and now, if you want to open it, you’d better have some manner of hand saw near by.  Of course, if you wait a little longer it just may crumble, the metal is that spent.  The gate on which the lock sits surrounds a small family plot in the middle of a larger church graveyard in scenic Mazeppa, PA.  Look toward the bottom left and you’ll see the cool grey of an eroded headstone behind the gate.  All things pass.  Even metal.

Ain't no party like a Mazeppa party.

Patience…patience…

The next photo was taken during the waxing stage of a new moon.  It was a beautiful night and it was the fourth of July and the moon was spectacular rising through the trees.  The moon, of course, is what the ancients used to mark time (moon->month, see the connection?) and so…

Hey, baby. It's the fourth of July.

Hey, baby. It’s the fourth of July.

When in Rome…go to the Forum.  While Rome is indeed an ancient city, that doesn’t mean that all its streets are exactly as they were 2,000 years ago.  Since Rome is subject to things like flooding from the Tiber River, and because people live there and are a dynamic presence in their environments, streets and buildings have altered over time.  But not at the Forum.  The structures may not all be intact, but the paths and steps and view are indeed the same steps that Julius Caesar walked, the same stones Cleopatra crossed, the same view that greeted Marc Antony.  The Roman general, not the ex-husband of JLo.  Holy pockets!  Though admittedly, that doesn’t signal so much the passage of time as it does take me backwards through time.  But who cares?  It’s all good.

Greetings from 2,000 years ago.  The weather is beautiful, wish you were here.

Greetings from 2,000 years ago. The weather is beautiful, wish you were here.

Time, time, time.  See what’s become of me?

What?  Like I could resist.

Travel Theme: Roads

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.

JRR Tolkein, The Fellowship of the Ring

Ailsa’s travel theme this week at Where’s My Backpack? is…roads!  So let’s get to it, shall we?

North End, Boston

North End, Boston

Welcome to Boston’s North End.  I took this photograph one beautiful summer night, and the full moon shining over the road was irresistible.  Whenever I look at this picture I get that happy, warm feeling that comes from stuffing myself silly with a delicious Italian meal, and sharing a bottle of wine and excellent company.  The scenery certainly helps.  I also covet that…is that a rooftop patio?  With the string of lights?  Upper left?  Swoon.

A Roman street.

A Roman street.

Rome has been around for a long, long time.  The buildings are built on roads that have been around for a long, long time.  That weren’t initially conceived to accommodate auto traffic and parking.  So they are narrow narrow narrow.  If I lived there I couldn’t imagine getting anything bigger than a Vespa.  When I was planning my trip, a friend who had already been to Rome gave me one piece of advice I found invaluable: Stay.  On.  The sidewalk.  I would occasionally feel like I was in a live-action game of Frogger.   (That’s right, I’m going old-school.)  But you know, that’s part of the character of the city and it was awesome.

Welcome to New Jersey.  Now go home.

Welcome to New Jersey. Now go home.

This was the scene that greeted me at the entrance to the New Jersey Turnpike off the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  Roads can get you where you want to go, and can also be a giant obstacle.  It was smooth sailing up until we got here.  And while I do generally defend my home state, there’s not much you can say in defense of this.  I don’t think my fellow travelers were as excited to see this backup as I was, though, since I was certainly the only one hanging out the car window with a camera in her hand.  I’m not sure of the commentary that’s supposed to be provided by the flag; should this make me feel patriotic, or something?  I’d feel better if they hung a big sign that said, “Sorry!  We’ll get this mess cleaned up ASAP.”

Sigh.

Sigh.

And this sylvan stretch of road goes through the hills of central Pennsylvania.  Good camping out here, if you’re a camper.  This is the sort of road that spurs me on to flights of fancy; while I realize you can never know what’s at the other end of any road, this sort holds all kinds of potential.

May the road rise up to meet you.  See you at Ailsa’s!

Weekly Photo Challenge: Foreign

One of the fun things about traveling is getting to that point where you know that you’re not home any more.  Though you do have to be careful about becoming weirdly jaded–cities are cities and they all contain common elements–traffic, garbage, pushy people, great shopping–that can override your sense of appreciation for what’s definitive and amazing, though some cities do make their unique characteristics much more difficult to ignore.  I’m looking at you, Paris.  As for traveling through the countryside…well…I live in the country.  I know what a cow looks like.

See?  Weirdly jaded and not groovy at all.

Below are a few photos that represent for me the moments when I fully appreciated the impact of being somewhere new and different, that had much more to offer than a wide array of stylish shoe shops.

Inis Mór, Ireland

Staring out into the North Atlantic from the edge of Inis Mór (Aran Islands)

One of these days I’m going to go in and fix that white blotch on the picture.  This was a film camera, not digital, and apparently the film had a little flaw.  Anyway.  Inis Mór, one of the little fingertips of granite poking out of the North Atlantic off Ireland’s west coast, is quiet.  During the day Kilronan, the town we stayed in, bustles with activity.  Tourists come in from Galway and shop for Aran Island sweaters (I have one in green) and other crafter’s goods.  At night, many of them are gone, and the island falls profoundly quiet.  It’s a quiet I’ve rarely had a chance to experience and can be found if you wander only a short distance away from the center of town.  It’s well-nigh impossible to photograph quiet, but I can photograph empty and deserted.  We encountered a father and son pair of hikers on the way up to this spot–and that’s it.  To get here, you have to climb over uneven terrain, and as you can see by the clouds the weather isn’t always on your side.  There’s no easily-graded hiking path, there’s no handrails, there are no guardrails or warning signs to keep you from the ledge.  I was glad to be so profoundly out of my element.  It’s good to recognize the times that you stand on the edge of the world.  There are all sorts of ways we can stare into the abyss; this was just one of them.

Paris, France

Along the Seine, Paris

Keeping in line with my statement about being weirdly jaded, Paris shares a lot with other cities.  Its avenues are far more tree-lined and gracious, and the art and architecture you find everywhere you go…amazing.  It is a spectacular city and one of my top three (Venice and Boston also jockey for the top position, dependent on my mood) but again, it’s a city.  You can still get hungry and sweaty and cranky walking around, you can still get tired of getting jostled and just want to chill out in your hotel room.  What you can’t necessarily have, though, is someone playing sax along the Seine, at night, under a street lamp.  This was somewhere near the Île de la Cité, the island on which Notre Dame is located, and we came across him after a long day of walking and looking and stuffing ourselves full of food and sights.  I remember hearing the sound waft up, and I had to follow it to its source.  There he was, looking like he stepped off the set of a movie, under the light with a few nighttime listeners sitting around.  I was mesmerized as I realized just how far from home I was, and I loved every moment of it.

Rome, Italy

The Colosseum, Rome

We got to Rome on a Monday.  Monday is not the best day to be in Rome, if you’re a tourist, because a lot of museums and such are closed, unless it’s a biggie like the Colosseum.    Since visiting the Colosseum was on our must-do list, and it was one of the things that was open, it was the first thing we did once we got to Rome and dropped off our stuff at the hotel.  We took the metro, got off at the Colosseo stop and…stood blinking our eyes in slack-jawed disbelief as we walked up the metro steps and saw the Colosseum rise before us.  There it was, sitting in the middle of traffic, a feast for the eyes before you even step in the door.  (I’ve said this before but I can’t stress it enough.  FYI, if you do go to Rome, get the Roma Pass.  You’ll be in that door so much more quickly.)  The thing about the Colosseum is, it’s so well preserved and maintained, you can’t help but find yourself transported.  I found it impossible to not step outside myself and imagine sitting in the crowd, or find sympathy for the combatants waiting in the (now exposed) hallways under the main floor, who knew their likely death would serve as entertainment for the crowd.  The Colosseum didn’t just stress to me that I was in a different city, but it took me to a different time and a different mindset, and forced me into a humane and human exercise I didn’t expect.  And that?  Is not something you get every day.

You can see more of this week’s “Foreign” photo challenge here.

Travel: Rome, Part III: In No Particular Order

In my self-nomination for Understatement of the Year, I say this:  There are other things to see in Rome besides the Colosseum and the Vatican.  Here’s a tour of but a few of them, in no particular order.

Castel Sant’Angelo

Just down the road from the Vatican–literally, as in, go straight out St. Peter’s Square, past the vendors selling “holy water” and pictures of Pope JPII (that’s gotta be a burn to the current Signore Benedict, but I digress) and craptastic Vatican magnets–stands the Castel Sant’Angelo.  The Castel was originally built to serve as Hadrian‘s mausoleum in something like 139 A.D.  In making plans for the inevitable, the slightly bombastic Hadrian (can an emperor not be a bombast?) found himself in opposition to a Roman law that decreed that no burial should take place within the confines of Rome.  He couldn’t get around it, what with concerns about public health and the spreading of disease.  In an impressive display of ancient finger-giving, Hadrian built his tomb on the opposing banks of the river, giving Rome the figurative full monty while just outside its jurisdiction.

Yeah, I got yer no tombs within city limits, riiiiiight heeeeeeere.

The papacy, not to be out-strategized, recognized Hadrian’s tomb as an important location to hold on the river, and slowly began appropriating the Castel for their own use.  It has been at different times a prison and a papal refuge.  A la Dan Brown, there really is a fortified corridor that runs between the Vatican and the Castel, which has indeed been put to use to safely transport the Pope out of the Vatican in times of trouble and before the age of helicopters or Popemobiles.  (Angels & Demons fans may recognize this place as the lair of the Illuminati but as always, when Dan Brown is mentioned, I feel the need to remind people that while he may include some facts in his books he is, without reservations, a fiction writer.  Moving on.)  In 590, Pope (now Saint) Gregory the Great awoke from a dream/vision/conversation with the Archangel Michael.  In this dream, Michael appeared at the top of the Castel and assured Pope G. that the infestation of the plague (yes, THE plague) causing misery throughout Rome would end soon.  The Pope erected a statue of Michael on the spot he appeared, began referring to the Castel as the “Castle of the Holy Angel” (Sant’Angelo, Holy Angel…get it?) and further fortified the mausoleum-turned-fortress, because battlements surely help keep out a nasty plague.  In the interests of understanding the evolution of global manners, I think it’s important to point out that the tradition of wishing for someone’s health when they sneeze, which had been considered a courtesy (but not widely adopted) for many, many years before this, became the norm as Pope Greg tried to buoy the spirits of the plague-riddled Romans.  Because when you’re faced with an invisible enemy that can seemingly kill at will, why not try throwing a little magical thinking at the problem?  In all seriousness and with every ounce of compassion I have for a populace who didn’t have a clue about the complexities of infectious diseases, I completely understand this impulse.  It might not make one jot’s worth of difference, but I get the instinct.  Anyway.

The Castel is pretty impressive, and it’s another example of being able to walk around on the original–and in this case ancient–street, since they modified around the original structure but not over it.

The right wall is the original mausoleum, the left wall is later fortifications, and the path runs at ancient Roman street level, baby.

And you get to see some beautiful views of the city.

Looking over the Ponte Sant'Angelo, a gorgeous bridge lined with Renaissance-era statues.

Italy, you owe me for this one.

Roman Holiday fans, if you’re keeping track, this is the very spot where the scene with the party on the barge took place.  You know the one–where Audrey Hepburn smashes her bodyguards over the head with a guitar and swims off with Gregory Peck.  That’s right.  Right here.  And while I didn’t see any party barges (more’s the pity), I can assure you the festive atmosphere remains, whether there’s Illuminati skulking about or not.

How can you not be festive, with vendors like these?

Best. Tchotchkes display. Ever.

It’s an umbrella on a tripod.  I love these guys.

The Bocca della Verità

The Bocca della Verità, or “Mouth of Truth”, is an ancient stone mask hanging in the causeway of a tiny little church in the center of Rome, not far from Palatine Hill.  The legend that earned the Bocca its notoriety claims that if a liar sticks his or her hand in the creepily open maw of the mask, then the mask will animate and bite the liar’s hand off, forever causing a hardship and marking that person as untrustworthy.  Roman Holiday fans, if I have to explain this one to you…never mind.  If I have to explain this one to you, then you are a faux, poseur RH fan and this conversation is over.

No sweat.

And the thing about the Bocca is, the church that it’s located at, Santa Maria in Cosmedin, is beautiful, but most of the visitors don’t seem to care that much.  All they want to do is get their hand-groove on and then leave.  This space has been in use, first as a temple to Hercules Invictus (yes, that Hercules) and then as a poorhouse, and then as a church, since the 2nd century BC.  Currently, the church has been restored to its 8th-century appearance.

See? It's beautiful, and a lot quieter than most of Rome.

Check out the remains of some 11th-century frescoes.

Plus, it boasts a relic of St. Valentine!

The head of St. Valentine. Creepy? Or spiritually engaging?

Once you get through the crowd at the Bocca, take a few moments away from the heat and the crowds to experience Santa Maria.  You won’t regret it.

Circus Maximus

Just down the road from Santa Maria in Cosmedin lies the ruins of the Circus Maximus.  Circus Maximus, or “giant circle”, is where Romans held things like chariot races, just like in Ben Hur.  (Note: if you pause the Ben Hur video at the four-second mark, you’ll see the screen painting of the Circus with the Palatine Hill complex behind it, which is sort of cool.)  There isn’t much left of the Circus; you can see some bones of stands and starting gates, and you can definitely see its relation to Palatine Hill.

One end of the Circus Maximus, with Palatine Hill looming.

The Circus was rebuilt several times over a span of about a thousand years, perhaps most famously in 64AD, when the fire that burned much of Rome (and Nero fiddled) started in the wooden vendors’ stalls.  Many of the structures that comprised the Circus were eventually cannibalized for other buildings, and other parts of it were simply covered over, as this is technically a valley and quite prone to flooding.  The topsoil?  New.  Or at least, newer than ancient Rome-level of new.  But it’s still one of those places where the visitor can benefit from closing their eyes and imagining what it must have been like, in the sun, on a horse, with 150,000 people cheering for someone to win and someone else to die, perhaps spectacularly.

Looking out from the middle of the track. Let your mind wander.

Piazza Navona

Piazza Navona is a tremendously long square (go on, joke away about how it’s technically a rectangle and consider it a gift) that is bordered on one side by the Palazzo Pamphili, an astonishing piece of baroque architecture that has been the home of the Brazilian Embassy since 1920.

Palazzo Pamphili, along the Piazza Navona.

It’s kind of a typical piazza; there are teenagers hanging out, vendors everywhere (I was happy to buy some chestnut honey and some grappa while I was there), and a fabulous fountain or two.  Or three, really, but I kept getting distracted by vendors with chestnut honey.  :)

Piazza Navona, where fountains abound.

Or, because all statuary is better with pigeons…

He's so earnest, so focused and yet, there is a pigeon on his head.

There isn’t much to do at a piazza.  You just sort of hang out.  Shop a little, maybe.  Soak up some sun.  Feast your eyes on the guy who painted himself gold…

I think I am a street artist poser guy magnet. I don't know why. They just find me.

And I know, I KNOW, you’re all thinking…wait, isn’t that how they killed that lady in Goldfinger, by covering her body in paint?  And didn’t that actress really die from that?  To answer, yes, that’s how they killed the character Jill Masterson, but actress Shirley Eaton was fine; in fact, she’s still hanging out doing her thing and her premature death is nothing more than an unfortunate urban legend.  Though I can’t attest for how well this guy will do if he doesn’t stay hydrated.  Leather coat + body paint + hot day = potential recipe for disaster.  It’s just because I care, people.  I am an international beacon of good will.

The Pantheon

The Pantheon is a tremendous building, built 2,000 years ago.  While that should merit interest enough it is also, apparently, still home to the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.  Those ancients, they were so clever.  The building was originally constructed to honor the gods of the seven celestial bodies of the Sun, Moon, Venus, Saturn, Jupiter, Mercury, Mars, hence the name (“pan” for “all” and “theon” for “gods”).  A distinguishing feature is the oculus, the hole in the middle of the dome that is the Pantheon’s only source of light.  Yes, it’s open to the sky and the rain gets in.  Don’t fret–if the Romans can devise an unreinforced dome, they can come up with an efficient drainage system.  It’s all good.

The entrance, bearing the name of Marcus Agrippa, who commissioned the building of the Pantheon in 27 BC.

Pantheon interior, showing the dome and oculus.

And lurking outside the Pantheon…

Freelance gladiators. Two words I never thought I'd put together.

When I first saw these guys I thought, oh, what a crappy summer job.  And then I looked at them and realized, these aren’t college kids and they’re taking their posing pretty seriously.  I had assumed they were a sanctioned part of the Roman tourist industry BUT!  It seems I was wrong.  Apparently, they’re rogue gladiator-impersonators who show up at places like the Pantheon and the Colosseum and pose with the tourists for about ten bucks a pop.  The Roman government had turned a blind eye to them for a while but now, is trying to clamp down on their business.  On the one hand, I understand trying to get a handle on who’s working the crowds, particularly because the gladiators can be aggressive in their approach to the tourists but on the other?  The Italian economy has seen better times, and people are just trying to find ways to put food on their tables.

Roman Holiday watch: Joe and Anya get drinks in an outdoor cafe right next to the Pantheon.

The Trevi Fountain

The Trevi Fountain is knock-your-eyes-out gorgeous.

Words fail with this one, so just feast your eyes.

It was originally located at the junction of three roads (“tre” = three and “vie” = roads, or ways) and the terminus of an arm of the Roman aqueduct system.  The backdrop of the Fountain is the Palazzo Poli, the former home of poets and a major Italian literary salon, and which is now the home of the National Institute of Chalcography.  Copper engraving plates.  Apparently, they’ve extended their collection beyond copper engravings to include the broader concept of “prints”.  Unfortunately for the copper engraving industry, none of the crowd at the Fountain is there for the Institute.

Eeek! People!

But they are there for the chestnuts.

The noble chestnut vendor, Trevi Fountain.

A long-held legend associated with the Fountain is that if you throw a coin–backwards, over your shoulder–into it, then you are assured that you will return to Rome.  I think that’s lovely, but I’ve discovered that buying a ticket for an aeroplane works just as well as tossing coins over your shoulder–better, really, since with a ticket you’re guaranteed a seat (overbookings and airline snafus aside).

Roman Holiday watch: The Trevi Fountain is where Joe gets uber-creepy and tries to abscond with that little girl’s camera, while Anya gets her hair cut just down the street.

The Spanish Steps

The Spanish Steps are so named because they are at the site of the Palazzo di Spagna, a/k/a the Spanish Embassy.  They go up from the Palazzo to the Trinità dei Monti church and FYI, both Spain (the country) and the Trinità dei Monti (the church) are part of the Bourbon Dynasty.  (I didn’t realize Spain‘s current king, Juan Carlos I, was from the House of Bourbon.  I didn’t even realize there was still such a thing as the House of Bourbon.  So much for my knowledge of European monarchic households.  Every day is for learning.)  There are 138 steps and almost every single of them has people on them.  OK, that’s not fair, as the higher up the stairs you climb the less people you encounter, but the piazza and the lowest tier of the steps were jam-packed with people.  I could hear the din of the crowd long before I actually saw them.

I just want to reiterate: this is off-season for tourism.

It’s a popular place for just sitting back and relaxing, which is a welcome relief; there’s so much to do in Rome, it’s good to find a place to take a load off your feet for a while.  And when you get nearer to the top…

Flautist!

I think he was covering Green Day tunes.

The Trinità dei Monti at the top is another piece of eye candy, though it is Renaissance in style and not baroque or rococo and so, considerably less frilly, which (depending on what sort of sights you’ve seen) is a clean and welcome relief.

Trinità dei Monti

Right next to the church was an entrance to the Roman metro, which was a happy sight after a full day on the town, though happy not for the reasons you might think.

Welcome to the pithiest metro sign in all of Christendom.

And while I hate to make you all jealous, we pretty much had weather like this through the entire trip.  It was awesome.  For more pictures of any of these places, please feel free to visit Rome, 2012.

Roman Holiday watch: Anya, gelato, Spanish Steps, Joe pretends to find her even though he’s been covertly following her all day?  Seriously?

Here's where the fun began. Get the good times underway!

Anyway.  Rome has a ton of things to do and this is but one woman’s small sample of how to pass the time in a majestic city.  If you don’t like any of my suggestions, that’s fine.  You’ll find something to do.  Not if but when I go back (coins tossed in the Trevi Fountain or not), I’ll probably do an entirely different selection of things, but doing something new is what’s best about travel.  So with that in mind…Go.  What are you waiting for?

Travel: Rome, Part One

I spent a lot of time worrying about my trip to Italy, wondering where I was going to go and what I was going to do that would make me not a capital-T Tourist.  I spent a lot of time working on my aloof slouch and my unseeing-yet-haughtily-judgmental stare.  I looked over my cute shoes.  I practiced saying “Please” and “Thank you” and “Where is the bathroom?” in Italian.  Despite my efforts I didn’t feel ready and then I realized a few things.  First, I realized I was never going to be “ready” like I would like it.  My camera bag was going to pull double-duty as my purse and it’s not as though it’s a spy camera.  Folks would know what I was hauling.  My Fauxtalian accent sounded bitten off at the ends, like someone who grew up in New Jersey might pronounce things.  And…I was planning a goddamned Audrey Hepburn-esque Roman Holiday romp across the Trevi fountain, the Mouth of Truth and the Spanish Steps .  This isn’t something Romans do, this isn’t something natives anywhere do.  If you’re from New York you don’t make it a point to visit all the places Carrie went to in Sex and the City (not linking because I hate it that much), you just give the finger to the people who do.  Hence I realized…said…embraced…the idea that I.  Am.  A.  Tourist.  Though there is an important distinction: it is entirely possible to be a responsible, respectful, and pleasant tourist who promotes peace and joy and harmony, and not be a major asshole who barely escapes provoking an international incident. First things first: keep working on learning how to say “Please” and “Thank you” and “Where is the bathroom?” in the language of the country decent enough to let you inside its borders.  It’s just nice.  I know they all speak English in Italy and honestly, Italians don’t seem terribly put out by the prospect.  But…you could at least have the decency to be embarrassed that you can’t handle more than one language at a time in your brain while the Italians often juggle at least two (or in the service industry, maybe three or four, the horror, the horror…). Next: forget cute.  Wear comfortable and dependable shoes.  Granted, there are some styles that manage to meet both needs, but here’s the thing: much of Rome?  Cobblestones.  Hard, slippy, unyielding cobblestones.  Notice the Roman ladies walking around you.  How can you tell they’re Roman?  They’re the ones in sensible shoes.  (True story: while out one night, I noticed three young women picking their way–slowly, carefully–across a busy street, and getting across a street quickly is often a key to survival in Italy.  One of these ladies had on four-inch heels and while they were lovely shoes, there were absolutely a navigational and visual detriment.  Instead of looking all smooth and competent and hot, she looked clumsy, unsexy, and pointlessly vain.  So…what image were you going for again?)

Mmmmm, delicious date tree...

Third: bear in mind you are NOT going to another country to experience things exactly as they are at home, only in a slightly different setting.  You are going to another COUNTRY, one that has its own set of sensibilities and standards and traditions.  Adapt.  I mean, I don’t have date trees in my back yard at home.  I don’t have access to a clean and efficient metro.  Not nearly enough people in my home town drive Vespas.  And if I asked most of the people in my town what they had to say about cacio e pepe, they would probably recommend an ointment.  Would I have preferred to know that Italian hotels don’t provide washcloths?  Sure, of course, and it was probably in one of the many travel guides that I picked up and skimmed but didn’t read word-for-word because they’re about a thousand pages long.  Still, even though I didn’t realize this, it wasn’t a cause for complaint, derision, or the ruination of my perfectly grand time.  I am mightier than a bizarre oversight, and it was, indeed, a grand time. Rome is magnificent.  It is not without its flaws–it’s hot, there’s a surprising amount of litter on the streets, and it is alarmingly crowded, just jam-packed with people.  Non-Easter week at the end of March/beginning of April is hardly the height of tourist season and yet…

Off-season at the Trevi Fountain.

A banana peel on the Spanish Steps. This is a punchline waiting to happen.

However.  There are few places I can think of that are so vividly culturally relevant.  Few places where you can inadvertently stumble over a 2,000 year-old ruin.  Few places that quite so unabashedly celebrate art and food and life.  For whatever its flaws, Rome deserves its distinction as the Eternal City.

So what to do when you get there, especially if you’re fresh off a plane?

1) Get quickly acquainted with public transportation.  If your hotel offers shuttle service from the (absolutely goddamned enormous) Rome airport, make use of that.  Get a taxi, find the metro.  Invest in a Roma Pass, as that not only serves as your metro swipe card but also allows you to go through the pre-paid line at loads of museums and events, which (see “Rome is crowded”) is a godsend.  Or, since this is Rome, a Jupitersend.

Should you consider renting a car and driving in Rome, hit yourself in the head with a brick until you come back to your senses.  As a side note, while I absolutely advise against driving in Rome, ever, I do recommend taking at least one ride in a taxi so you can experience the mercenary chaos that goes down on the Roman streets, every day.  And if you’re walking, anywhere…stay on the sidewalk.  Crossing the street in Rome is like playing a giant game of dodge ball, only the other team is throwing cars and scooters at you instead of bouncy rubber balls.

I’m not kidding.

2) Evaluate your level of strung-outedness.  How long was your flight?  Did you sleep on the plane?  (Of course you didn’t; who sleeps on a plane?)  Is it morning?  Mid-day?  How limited is your time in Rome?  In beating jet lag so you can maximize your time, do everything you can to stay up at least through dinner–you’re in Rome, get an espresso!  (Or as they call it there, “coffee”.  Because they are THAT hard core.)

3) What day is it?  Get a reliable travel guide, check the date, and make sure your targeted events are open.  Because they do close.  We got to Rome on a Monday, and lots of things are closed on Mondays.  Why?  Because they can.  Because they’re Rome, and they know you’ll hang around long enough to see them.  Should you get in to Rome and settled into your hotel at oh…say, 1:30 or so on a Monday afternoon and you need to get your head around the metro and don’t want to waste the day trying to figure out what to do, then make plans to head straight for the Colosseum.  It’s open every day, there’s a metro stop right across the street, and you instantly get to experience the shock and awe of an amazing architectural achievement.  And if you have the aforementioned Roma Pass, the guards open the little clippy gates for you and wave you right through, past the line that’s at least a hundred people deep.  Rock.

Truth: I didn't get close to the cross to see what it's about; I can only assume it's a marker commemorating all the Christians eaten by lions in this very stadium.

It's one of those places that is nearly impossible to capture the size and scope.

But we do try.

The Colosseum ticket is sold as a combo ticket in conjunction with access to the Palatine Hill, which is literally right across the street.  Palatine is the central hill of ancient Rome, and boasts the presence of the hut in which Romulus and Remus were raised by a wolf before founding the Eternal City.  Rich peoples’ homes, temples, and an imperial palace are located at the top of the hill (because of the schmancy homes, “Palatine” gave us the word “palace“, get it?); the Roman Forum is at the bottom.  Yes, THE Forum.  The place where democratic civilizations were born.  It’s kind of a trip to walk along the pathways and think, indeed, these are the stones Caesar and Cleopatra walked on, and I’m not even broaching into melodrama.  It’s true.  Circus Maximus sits on the other side of the Palatine Hill complex, but we’ll get to that in a later post.

(As an aside, I looked for a link about Cleopatra in Rome that was anywhere near as informative as the one I posted here about Caesar, and I couldn’t find one.  Like Cleopatra doesn’t merit her own twelve-part webpage, or something?  Like the only thing we want to know about Cleopatra can be found in the Liz Taylor movie, craptastically awesome as that movie may be?  So the hell with it.  Just get yourself a copy of The Memoirs of Cleopatrait’s one of the books I was sad to finish because it was THAT GOOD.  To heck with you, Internets.)

Anyway, yes, Palatine Hill and the Forum.  Like I said before, it’s hard to find a place with a greater concentration of historical impact.

Arch of Constantine and the Palatine Hill complex, right across the street.

On Palatine Hill.

More Palatine Hill.

Arch of Titus at the Forum.

Looking up from the Forum!

More pictures of the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill complex can be found here.

Immerse yourself in your surroundings.  It’s rare that you can walk around on the actual ancient streets of a city, that it hasn’t been entirely built over.  Imagine what it was like to see all this in its prime.  Imagine the buildings around the Forum still standing, imagine the Colosseum with the marble veneer that used to be around it, intact.  Once you do that, I dare you to try and tell me it’s not a magnificent city.  (Word of warning: you’ll lose.)  And then?  Head back to your hotel, go to the little shop across the street (because there is sure to be one), sit on the patio and have a delicious, relaxing, end-of-your-first-day bottle of wine.

I don't think the day could have ended more perfectly.

Coming next: The Vatican!

No more posts.