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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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…
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?