Baroque Rome

Buongiorno! It’s another beautiful sunny morning in the city of Rome! No reason not to smile and not to be happy about life – La vita è bella! The mission for the day was to discover more modern sides of Rome. But we started off with something fundamentally ancient. We couldn’t help it as the location of our hotel got us face to face with ancient times. I said “Buongiorno!” to the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument as we were walking past it on our way to the Pantheon, a legendary building dating back to over two thousand years ago. We got a bit lost on our way to it and stumbled across what we were planning to see a bit later – the magnificent Piazza Navona. I instantly recognized it as well! It was one of the most beautiful piazzas I’d seen so far! In ancient times it used to be a racetrack and it was huge!
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I did a little research about the architect Bernini and the way he transformed Rome into what it is today adding a strong touch of Baroque and he really excelled at making this place a perfect public space. I’ve got a huge love of fountains and the magic transcending them. The most famous Four Rivers Fountain, the classic Baroque, was stunning and its noises made me feel I was in an actual river! Another marvellous Egyptian obelisk… There is so much to take in! It was like a dream I didn’t want to wake up from! That was Baroque was all about! Transcending people into a dream!
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According to the map, we were just close to the Pantheon but we didn’t seem to find it. We were circling around a maze of splendid churches surrounding it when finally here it was – low-key and fragile from the back. That was where you didn’t have to imagine too much – it was there standing in front of your eyes! Sometimes the past is more than a pile of rubble and can make the past tangible enough to be believed! The Pantheon was a perfect example of that. We knew the main gem was inside and we had a visit to the Borghese Gallery booked two hours later so we only had a quick look around the neighbourhood. It was touristy but there was an amazing chaotic vibe. See you soon, Pantheon!
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We headed to the famous Spanish steps. On our way we walked by the imposing Column of Mark Aurelius in Piazza Colona.
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What we were about to see was staggering enough to sweep us off our feet. Those were the pricetags in the famous boutiques in Via dei Condotti.
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We didn’t feel we were the only people who couldn’t afford to splash out on any of these outrageously fashionable items! Who even wears those? It was amusing to catch a glimpse of items for a privileged few. Is this paradise? Spending everything on a bag? Well, to me it would be more than everything! High-end shopping is similar to a museum experience for me. Well, there is no reason not to smile! I’m here in Rome and my ticket bought me more than money can buy! And I felt like singing “Felicità, felicità!”
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Up at the end of the street we could see the famous Spanish steps with the church Trinita dei Monti at the top. There is the Spanish embassy near here, hence the name. To be honest, that was my first disappointment here in Rome.
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I’d been imagining I would see an extraordinary set of steps with blooming flowers of both sides, the imposing church at the top and the fountain at the bottom. In fact, there were no flowers, the façade of the church was under reconstruction and so was the fountain. So only the steps were there. It felt more like a construction site and I felt a bit intrusive coming here as if I caught someone in the middle of something and should excuse myself and leave.
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Was that me a while before with emotinal tears coming to my eyes as I was watching a Rome documentary showing a beautiful crowd of people hanging around here at night eating their gelatos or sharing glances (or kisses)? Well, I shouldn’t have felt this way! But you can’t help it – the thoughts of the future can be way more vibrant than real life! But can you really live this real life with no thoughts of the past and the future? They will come creeping in! And what about the view? Yes, it was gorgeous as we got up the stairs! The palm trees, beautiful houses! I felt a bit of Spain in the middle of Rome! It’s like some tension building up in the air waiting to climax – that’s what I was feeling till the moment some Asian man approached me with a rose! No, it wasn’t a romantic gesture at all! That’s a little trick they play on you in major Italian cities. They come up to you and put a rose in your face. You have to keep saying “No, thanks!” quite a lot before they leave you alone. Others were trying to get us to buy some souvenir toys… We were aware of that but that was the first time we had been mobbed by these conmen.Keats and Shelley must have got another impression of the place. There was their memorial house close by. That was the house where Keats spent his last days.
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So it wasn’t a place to hang around long and it was time for us to go all the way to the Borghese Gallery that seemed to be only accessible on foot.
This unique gallery is set in Rome’s third largest public park – Villa Borghese. We walked past the places like Villa Medici and enjoyed magnificent views of the Dome till we reached this vast green space. It’s a perfect place to escape the city (not that we were up for that but locals probably would be).
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It’s an English style park and there was a little something just around every corner. My sister has a fascination for parks and she seemed to be enjoying being here even more than anything else we’d seen so far. Just lying on the grass pensively looking at the sky or enjoying a leisurely read… That wasn’t our plan for the day! It took us a while before we felt we were reaching the gallery.
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It was scorchingly hot but it felt a bit more bearable here. The gallery building wasn’t large. It boasts a large private collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese. Reservations can only be made well in advance and two hours is all you get here. It all made it feel like we were paying a private visit to the cardinal himself to be kindly shown his extraordinary art collection.
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We waited in a queue to get our tickets and at 1 p.m. sharp our tour began. Soaking up art has to be an essential ingredient of a trip and that had been our first time doing it on our own in an art gallery. I need a lot of art classes to feel comfortable around such an impressive collection but at the end of the day, you learn as you go along. That was me learning. For me it’s more about emotions art stirrs in me. Whenever I feel this sultry warmth filling up this space between me and a piece of art, I know this is not going to ever let go. I’m enchanted, fascinated, mystified – you name it! But sometimes in order to help this connection along, you need to have an informed understanding of what you’re exposed to so it’s not just about how you feel. The rational part of us fuels our emotions and so they get the better of us and that’s that sultry warmth caused by a combination of knowing and feeling. There were a lot of exquisite paintings by especially by Caravaggio. But the absolute hightlight of the gallery for me was the sculpture by the famous Bernini whose masterpieces we marvelled at earlier that day in Piazza Navona. The statue “Apollo and Daphne” showing him losing his mind as she is running away from him and her fingertips are turning into leaves. A moment made into minutes I stood there feeling it blasting into particles of light I could feel right over to my fingertips. What a beautiful escape! A pleasure that might seem to be right at your fingertips but so hard to gratify. I was just dumbfounded!
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Another astonishing masterpiece was “The Rape of Proserpine” also by Bernini. This girl cannot turn into a tree and her sheer suffering resonates as you look into her tormented eyes…
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The masculinity was so vibrant and tense on the face of “David”, another jaw-dropping masterpiece…
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I think me and sculpture have a future together… After a final lingering look at “Apollo and Daphne” and resting our feet in one of magnificent halls, it was time for us to leave. The way that your visit is timed, makes the whole experience a bit strained but the sculptures certainly added something sublime to it… Without actually realizing it, we started babbling something out in English as we went down to the souvenir shop and I still have doubts as to whether it was us there or our identities were now blurred… We talked about the art of appreciation of art and it felt so amazing to be speaking English and feeling more integrated into the international melting pot. Is that me or someone I don’t really know writing this then…? No matter how we thought speaking English transformed our identities, somehow a man selling snacks in the park got the clue where we came from! Well, it’s all over our faces (even with sunglasses on them)…
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It was a long walk across the park and we rested our feet a bit more and we wanted to again and again. What I felt was a kind of tiredness I didn’t really want to recharge from, you want to keep going instead! That only happens while travelling, you think that if you pause, it will all go back to normal again – you and things you do every day… I wasn’t ready to stop, I wanted to hold onto this and that’s when we found ourselves on the Pincian Hill with sweepingly romantic views of Rome! A street performer was playing “Hotel California” by Eagles, a childhood throwback for me… Another movie-like scene when I felt like pausing and saying “No, that can’t be true, it’s just a film!”. It wasn’t, it was real!
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After a few days in Rome, I found myself being capable of distinguishing between different shades of romance (who was I turning into – another someone I don’t really know…?). An Asian guy who mistook me for an Italian and wanted to make my acquaintance after asking me to take a photo of him and his friend didn’t fit my extravagant painting of romance so I just smiled and said a simple no.
We were going down towards Piazza del Popolo (“People’s Square), a very famous public space, when we came across the Leonardo da Vinci Museum. There’s no visit to Italy without mentioning this Italian-born genuis. The museum is interactive and deals more with Da Vinci’s technical brilliance. There are replicas of different devices invented and developed by him and to me that was getting to know this significant aspect of his contribution that I had underestimated. There was also a short documentary on one of Da Vinci’s most mysterious work “The Last Supper”. I was just in the process of reading “The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown so I was hugely interested in that as this book centers on this painting. That was insightful and good fun!
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When we exited the museum, we could size up Piazza del Popolo. It was just splendid! Another obelisk, fountains… A perfect movie set except that there was another conman trying to sell us roses as we were taking photos… Never mind him! There was a lot going on there – some street performers doing magical tricks, someone performing Michael Jackson’s famous moonwalk – this actually made me feel emotional the way he performed it. There was some energy, what they now call “swag”, about it. I loved it and that helped me see what this square was all about!
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Now it was time for dinner and evening passegiata. We had a perfect place for this – the Via del Corso. It’s one of the main streets of central Rome lined with shops and restaurants. I knew it was supposed to feel special to walk it and it did! We popped into one of the cafes for our dinner. It was really busy so we were seated on the second floor.We were having a bellissima meal when I noticed another waiter who was serving an Asian girl who looked as if she was performing some magic food ritual involving boiled water and all he did was smile politely. He was just absolutely handsome and made me wish it was him who was serving us! Well, who was I turning into anyway? I had to remember about Russia and how things would be a lot more dreary there… OK, another lingering look at the waiter and we left… Just to hear the waiter who had served us humming the Russian anthem as we were going downstairs towards the exit! Well, the credit for this has to go to my sister as she was the one who noticed him do that as I was probably pondering over how my life would never be the same after I’d seen this waiter… She knew that would be something to mention here so a big thank you to her!
We knew the famous Trevi Fountain was under reconstruction while we were visiting so we weren’t going to get our taste of “La Dolce Vita” and couldn’t even contemplate jumping into that fountain like the volupterous Sylvia did in that legendary film by Federico Fellini. Some dreams aren’t meant to come true – there was just a massive construction site with tourists coming to hang around here probably on impulse. So there was no tossing a coin to go back and no Baroque marvel… But we were fine because now we had a lot more reasons to come back!
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The Vittorio Emanuele Monument didn’t fail to impress me again as I saw it at the end of the Via del Corso, it was magic at night! That has to be one of my top places in Rome!
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We heard more street performers as we headed along Via dei Imperiali all the way to the Colosseum that was still bustling. That night I got a close up!
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I admired the style of men walking by ever more as we went back to our hotel area and were about to experience something truly out of this world when we entered Santa Maria dei Monti church right across the road from our hotel. I could swear I was in a (horror) movie! What if they close the door and won’t notice us? Apart from that fear that was consuming me, that was genuinely spiritual! There seems to be no one around but the two of us. What a bliss! We safely got out and headed towards a popular meeting place in Monti – the Fountain of the Madonna dei Monti. There were youths hanging around and it was a really vibrant place and there was no one behaving disorderly, it was just young people spending time here surrounded by the ancient Rome. I loved it, it’s just so beautiful to feel young! After a daily portion of gelato, it was time for some shut eye. We had an early start the next day! More reflections and more fantasies… Bonne Nota!

Romantic Feline Rome

Waking up to another lovely Roman morning felt like a bliss! I could easily get used to that! After another bellissima breakfast, we picked up where we had left off the day before and made our way to the glorious Piazza Venezia along Via dei Fori Imperiale. By the looks of it, it was going to be another scorcher! We took a seat on a bench facing the snow white Vittorio Emanuele II Monument and I couldn’t get enough of it. It looked deliriously white against the azure skies. Italians might have mixed feelings about it, but I didn’t – I was loving it… with all my vision that enabled me to scrutinize all the little details of the 19th-20th century Italy. To me it didn’t seem to uglify this ancient part of Rome.
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Nearby a family of four were having their own lesson in the history of Italy as the oldest member seemed to be reading to them some facts from a guidebook. What a perfect place to learn about this monument! My sister was figuring out our itinerary for the day wearing her newly-purchased Italian flag hat. We came up to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with the eternal flame in the centre of it. A little moment to reflect for me surrounded by the Meditarrenean sky… A few breathtaking photos in front of the monument later, we set out past the Capitol Hill up to the romantic Aventine Hill.
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On our way we came across the remains of Teatro di Marcello, an ancient open-air threare and found ourselves in a queiter area of Rome. There was a serene ancient feel to it and mind you, we had just stepped out of the bustling Piazza Venezia!
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There was a small public space with a fountain and behind it there was another movie location – the Basilica of Saint Mary in Cosmedin with La Bocca della Verita (The Mouth of Truth) featured in the “Roman Holiday” starring the stunning Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. Would you dare to put your hand into this mouth? If you tell a lie, it will close! Not to worry, it’s just a legend! There were so many people (especially Asians) queuing to get their photo taken. There must be more cutting-edge ways to tell a lie from the truth, but I think we love to play around with this idea that it could all be so simple. We wish… We decided to take our photos through a fence and get a quick look at the interior of the church. That was my first visit to a Roman church. It was a small intimate place with a strangely celestial smell that seemed appropriate for worshipping.
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We made our way further and saw the Tiber banks. This river is crucial for Rome. It was really small and fragile, in a way like the Colosseum. There was St.Peter’s dome right in front of us and that led us to believe we were approaching the Vatican. We would see this awe-inspiring dome a lot through the course of that day. We weren’t sure which way to go next so we took a little break in a park overlooking the Tiber. It was a good retreat from the touristy side of Rome. There was a lingering romantic feel in the air and even a few homeless sleeping on a bench didn’t seem to diminish it. Following our gut feeling, we kept walking further as it was our mission to find Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta to see the iconic part of Rome in a keyhole… That is coming up! Getting on the hill involved a little climbing and that was good exercise! Later on did we find out that the church we saw up there was Basilica of Santa Sabina, the oldest Roman basilica in Rome. There was a wedding ceremony and it certainly looked different from what we get back home. Such a beautiful place to be joined together in holy matrimony… I wish to a newly-wed couple we saw posing for photos against a beautiful wall all the happiness in the world. I will never find out if they will last but I feel somehow privileged to have sneaked on this intimate moment. Like an old-time Italian movie… Why do I refer to movies so much…?
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Anyway, when the heat was becoming too much, we found a perfect place to let the world go by… That was what we originally came here for – the Aventine Hill with overwhelmingly lots of pine trees, my first sight of Rome two days before. As I was sitting looking up into the blue skies, I felt them pumping my lungs with sublime air that resonated through the pine tops to fill my tummy with butterflies dancing to canzone italiana played by the birds. I understood why this place was frequented by Roman love birds as well! Sharing a romantic moment up here must make life seem a bed of roses and there were a lot of these all around adding a sappy edge to the scene.
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. The views from up here were dizzyingly magnificent with the two massive buildings battling it out for the dominance of the Roman skyline – St.Peter’s Dome and the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument. How much history is Rome capable of accommodating?
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We were giving up hope of finding Piazza of the Knights of Malta (Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta). This is where you get a view of the Dome while cheekily peeping through a keyhole. We kept straight ahead and I suddenly knew that was it! There was a small queue and I was rejoicing as if I was about to accomplish something massive in my life! By the sounds of it, there were people from New York queuing behind us. I was wondering what it is like in New York now. I knew it must have been worlds away both literally and figuratively! Everyone seemed so excited having looked through the keyhole and I knew we were up for a treat! A girl with a heavy American accent was jubilant as I heard her say “So cool!!!” That’d better be cool indeed! It was my turn now and I had my camera at the ready for a magnificent photo! Wow! That reminded me of those old cartoons we used to watch projected onto a wall in the early 90s. What a small Rome! I was seeing across three countries – Malta, Italy and Vatican! That was the mission accomplished!
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A few more scenic views and we headed back down. This legendary keyhole was a lot closer than we’d thought!
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There was a glimpse of the Baths of Caracalla, the second largest Roman public baths, on the right. They looked like I would imagine the Sphinx in Egypt must look like emerging in between the heated air and the blue skies. I paused to take it in…
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It was now time for a much-needed meal. We walked back to this bustling part of the city where we had started off. It seemed like a touristy place and we seemed too tired to go find somewhere else to have lunch. Italian food and the way it is served is all we needed to perk up after a sweaty walk up the Aventine Hill. We found the name of some dish translated into Russian in such a funny way! Yes, you don’t mess with the Russian language, it’s too complex! I love how they serve you wine in a little cart filled with ice. It makes the whole experience feel posh. My sister looked like one happy girl munching on her mussels. They looked delicious and juicy. It’s such a bliss to see a person you love enjoying the moment and it’s fundamentally beautiful to enjoy this moment together in the beautiful Rome… Saluti, Roma!
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The next stop was a purrfect place in central Rome! Largo di Torre Argentina is a large archaeological site that nowadays houses the most feline place in the city – the Cat Sanctuary. It is speculated to be the very place where Julius Caesar was stabbed over two thousand years ago. It would all look just like a pile of rubble if it wasn’t for fluffy feline emperors who took over the place! One was busy busking in the sun as we were about to enter the shelter, which requires walking a few steps down. We were greeted by the lovely Anna, one of the seven volunteers who keep the place running. She turned out to be a teacher just like me and spoke fairly good English. She was kind to show us around. It was obvious who ran this place after all! I’m more of a cat lover but I can’t say I’m crazy about these animals, not to the point that I would be comfortable to have them around me all the time. I’d had two bad experiences with cats so that sort of put me off. Cats are generally manipulative and they know how to have things their way. A lot of the cats that were sheltered here had bad experiences with humans. Some were roaming the streets and got injured, others were left out on a street… Just like the ancient Rome spread around us, they had their stories to tell. It was easy to see they were better off here and most importantly, they could be cats again – getting into a mischief and having things their way… It’s not a paradise though, because the shelter had been facing the threat of a closure due to certain financial issues. Some humans don’t make things easier, do they?
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But humans like Anna make the world a better place doing what they do out of selflessness and compassion. Each visitor to the place can make a donation to support this amazing cause or even adopt a cat from a distance. This is what we opted to do. You can only adopt cats that aren’t likely to get a new home as they are too old or ill. Anna suggested we adopted a cat named Bomarzo with a disfiguring eye disease. He was nine years old. My sister filled in some paperwork and now we were proud to say we had an adopted cat here in Rome, this feline to keep us connected with the city. Unfortunately, Bomarzo has been dead for a few months now. My sister had been sending small donations to support him for almost a year before he passed away. Death is what people working here have to deal with as part of what they do… It’s nice there are people trying to tackle the problem of stray cats roaming the streets of Rome. According to Anna, there used to be quite a lot of them, but they had been trying to change that and given that we hadn’t seen a single stray cat during our stay, they’d been doing really well! We wished the shelter staff the best of luck and said our goodbyes. That was a bit of feline Rome in this ancient site. We just hoped all the animals are safe because the area has quite a busy traffic and sometimes humans beckon them to go up on a busy crossroad to follow them and that’s how one of the cats died… There are some beautiful people in Rome and what they do is amazing but of course there are things they can’t control…
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It was now time for another passegiata as the evening was setting in. We had another look at the archaeological site and made our way back to the Capitol Hill where we wanted to check out the second building of the Capitoline Museums. It was about an hour before the closing time so they wouldn’t let us in. We were a bit upset but that didn’t last in a scenery like this. I had another feel of this perfect piazza watching the sun about to start going down… We also got to enjoy some stunning replicas of She-Wolf. One was made from grass and wires and looked surreal with the letters S.P.Q.R. (“Senatus Populus que Romanus”, or “The Senate and People of Rome”) that you would find a lot on the streets of the Italian capital. The views of the Roman Forum that had us sweating hard the day before were breathtaking! Walking from one street to another in Rome can be a travel in time… I knew I was standing here enjoying something that others might just be planning to visit. That would be a perfect advertisement photo for Rome! Every travel starts off with a passion (or a good marketing campaign)…
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Piazza Venezia didn’t fail to admire me as the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument was getting a pinky shade transformed in the sunset… We also got to witness another wedding taking place in a church across the road. It was a beautiful middle-aged couple. They looked exhilarated as they were leaving the church and posed for their photos surrounded by cheerful friends and family. It was a feeling of joy that I found really overwhelming as they let out blue balloons up into the air. Why did all these people seem more beautiful to me than those back home? Was that their fashion sense or was that the magic of the capital’s passionate heart that made them seem so? Or was that the art of enjoying life showing through?
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I felt myself still smiling as we were on our way to the Quirinal Hill, the home to the official residence of the Italian president. It was just stunningly beautiful here in Piazza del Quirinale. There was an extraordinary fountain with a massive statue facing the Palace. I heard myself say “Beautiful!” again and how could I resist it?
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I kept looking into the eyes of one of the statues of a handsome male and I was utterly astonished and entranced as if those were the eyes of someone I could be in love with… Beautiful eyes are the reason enough for me to fall in love and I could definitely see myself falling in love with someone with the eyes like those. I thought I could cry with these eyes of mine with joy encapsulating me… These were the birds that ruled this place. Seagulls were just ruthless making noises and posing for photos. What a sight! And of course as we were on the highest of Rome’s seven hills, we got a perfect view of the Dome on the left! Bellissima!
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On our way back to the hotel area, we took a stroll along Via Nazionale, a famous shopping street. Most shops were closed by now but it was a change of scene to watch this modern vibe of Rome. We reached Piazza della Repubblica adjoining the Termini Train Station. There was a beautifully lit fountain in the centre of it. The Baths of Diocletian were in a far corner of the piazza. There was a really busy traffic here and we had to watch out. It was just amazing here too!
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We crossed the street to see an imposing cinema theatre and a treat for ladies – men’s clothes shop! Those suits we saw in a window shop didn’t even need a man to make you swoon! I was imagining a man with the eyes of that statue wearing that suit… He would certainly get my attention… I realized I shouldn’t fantasize too much as eventually I would have to go back to the sight of Russian men…
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Another beautiful dinner in our hotel area, another gelato (yes, we’re living it up), just a few fantasies (well, I was still in Italy!) and we are in bed. Grazie mille, Roma! Bellissima! Bonne Nota!

So an Ancient History Class Begins…

Buongiorno, Roma! A brisk Roman morning to wake up to! Bellissimo! The first thing I do is to look out the window to see how things have changed from the night scene. A narrow cobbled streets packed with tightly parked cars with a few cars managing to navigate this chaos. One is parked right at our door and it has probably brought our breakfast! I wish I could wake up every morning like this – carefree and ready to let travelling do what it does – transform me with new beautiful knowledge and probably make me look back on what is already the past. Delicious coffee and croissants and friendly staff got my morning started. It was going to be a scorching sizzling day as we were setting on our tour of the heart of the ancient Rome, which was just a short walk from our hotel.
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There is something beautiful about every morning spent in a new place, but there is extra something about the Roman morning especially when high up the road there is the… Colosseum! It’s not what you imagine it to be when you see it on countless photos and there is a slight fragility about it as you would expect of something that has been there since 80 A.D. and it is really mind-boggling just thinking about it! Can we even believe life existed back then?! Do we even exist as we are now about to become part of what was more than ages ago?
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After a short brisk walk we find ourselves right in front of this postcard image of Rome. Except that a significant part of the “building” is under reconstruction. It looks a lot smaller, but you can’t fail to see the legendary arches and how meticulously they are held together. One must really be able to step back in time in order to appreciate the engineering prowess of that era. We were expecting to be stuck in a overwhelmingly long queue to enter, but it was surprisingly easy to get inside. As you are standing there, you can’t really take in where you are.
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We go up the railing and here it is! Some people might not be curious about what the Colosseum is like from the inside, but I believe this is where you can at least make an effort to imagine how the colossity of the building must have felt to about 50,000 spectators that the arena could house. Of course it wasn’t light-hearted fun and entertainment, the building was designed with a political and social agenda in mind.
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The smell of sweat perspiring over a gladiator’s skin (that in a lot of people’s imagination would look like Russell Crowe in his star role in the film“Gladiator”), wild animals entering the arena roaring, spectators screaming as their thumbs go up or down… It all seems too long ago to be believed… We stroll around for a bit in the increasing heat and wish we had taken our hats with us. The place is getting filled with people who also seemed to be struggling to imagine what looked so elaborate and spectacular in movies. Just walking this area, I knew I was making up for my poor Ancient History education because even if it was hard to believe, I was part of it just like everyone else confusingly walking by.
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After a while, we got up to the upper level where there used to be cheap seats that gave a better view of the arena which was now being reconstructed. It was even hotter up here and this is where it hit me how huge emperors’ egos were and how they might have been standing here overlooking the arena. Creating an empire that large would require a big ego even though it wasn’t always the case for the Roman emperors. The fact that we might fail to see the grandeur and colossity of the Colosseum now shows what a long way we have come…
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Only a third of the original building remained and I see it as a privilege to go back in time (or at least make an effort to) and would love to believe that preserving it is more than just about generating revenues and making profit… The sun was beating up and having enjoyed a few more emperor-like moments, we went down to the Colosseum museum. Of course you might be tempted to scratch your name on one of the bricks and that would be deemed as a criminal offence. But it’s totally legal to put your hand on the brick and feel in touch with what is still unknown to you… I almost stumbled down one of the stairs of the inside area and I was aware of the significance of this moment. We saw a number of ancient objects on display and we were going to see a lot of them through the course of our trip. Yes, we’ve done that, we’ve seen the Colosseum and there is so much more!
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It was a midday and the streets were getting crowded. The next stop was the Roman Forum. Before that, we needed to cool off a bit and decided to have some gelato and the view we had was so magnificently ancient. My sister went to get it and I was sitting there admiring the Colosseum on the right and the Arch of Constantine on the left. That was the most breathtaking view I’d had so far!
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I’m not religious but I realize how important this arch is for Christianity. It was built about two hundred years later than the Colosseum but to us it all blurrs into an ancient infinity. That was an extraordinary ancient spot with two siginificant buildings adjoining each other in the centre of a modern European capital. There must be more to it than just a tourist attraction. I wonder what Italians think about ancient buildings making up an immense part of their cities. Does this feel like something counterbalancing hectiс modern lives? The History of the Roman Empire arguably pertains to more than the history of one country but the rest of the world as well. I was taking in the view watching people dressed up as gladiators and a few Americans goofing around who I guess weren’t aware of me understanding them until I started smiling. There was some couple speaking Spannish next to me. Were we all just spectators at that moment regardless of background and nationality? My sister finally came back with a large gelato and other Americans sitting close by made a comment that it was something that had to be tried. So off we went to the Roman Forum. It was getting boiling hot and the area we were about to tour looked impressively large! No wonder it did because the Roman Forum was the centre of the political and social life of the city. What we saw might have seemed just like a lot of grass and piles of rubble…
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What I instantly recognized was the Arch of Titus. My imagination was more fueled by heat than the ancient world I was submerged to. I was listening to an audioguide I had downloaded back home and it still wasn’t making sense. I was trying to imagine a bustling city centre, people gathering on the Via Sacra, but all I could feel was that I was hot! The only way I could think about Julius Caesar who might have walked this very area of the pavement where I was standing dripping in sweat was that he might be passing by for real. Yes, it felt as if I was hallucinating in this heat! We kept looking for a place to recharge and reflect. I’d failed this part of my Ancient History class and I realized we should have booked a tour of the Roman Forum instead. The area was too huge and poorly marked for us to navigate our way. There was one thing we were happy to find and that was a public fountain. We have ancient aqueducts to thank for that, a little salvation in the heat of a summer Roman day…
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Now that my consciousness was clearing up a bit, I was ready to take in the view we had from up where we were. An extensive green area, that was a chunk of the ancient Rome I wouldn’t have pictured back at school. We had no more physical energy for the Pallatine Hill. It took us a while to find our way to the exit and we knew we were there when we heard a man in a language very familiar to us saying that there it was… We enjoyed stunning views of the Colosseum from here and took some photos. I don’t know whether it was Roman heat or my growing awareness of the ancient times but I was starting to lose track of time…
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We headed back to our hotel having to open our umbrellas to protect us against the sunshine and had a gentleman commenting that it wasn’t raining… Well, it was too hot for us to care really! We got stocked up on some takeaway pizza in a lovely place right across the road from our hotel. We munched on our pizza back at our nice hotel room as we were reflecting on advantages and disadvantages of living in Italy after we saw that one of the women working in this place was of Slavic origin and spoke some Russian. Does working here right near the Colosseum make things easier for you..?
After having a break from the smouldering heat of the Roman Forum, we continued our Ancient History class as we headed to Capitol Hill (Campidoglio), the religious centre of the ancient Rome. We walked along Via dei Fori Imperiale, a road built by Mussolini to connect Piazza Venezia and the Colosseum with a few ancient structures demolished in the process. So I had mixed feelings walking it but the views I had were a treat! It was like walking an ancient alley of fame. Trajan’s Forum looked a lot more comprehensible than the Roman Forum and I loved panoramic views of it.
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I was enjoying standing there halfway between the ancient and medieval Rome. Originally we had difficulty finding the Capitol Hill and no one we asked seemed to know where it was. We were so desperate that we ended up asking a fellow Russian for directions in English! It turned out to be just across the corner from the National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II, an immense white monument dominating the Roman landscape celebrating the Unification of Italy.
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I recognized Capitol Hill and it was breathtaking to be walking up the Michaelangelo stairs to get to the Capitoline Museums. We were at the top of the hill in Piazza del Campidoglio with a replica of the statue of Marcus Aurelius in the centre of it. All I could say was “Beautiful!”, the word I would be saying a lot on this trip.
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The ancient and medieval worlds colliding was spectacular up here! We entered the first building of the museum (Palazzo dei Conservatori) to see a replica of the statue of David by Michaelangelo. A lot of tourists got inside for a sneaky photo.
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While in Rome, you find yourself bundled in layers and layers of history and that was just a beginning for us. There were remains of the statue of Constantine – his head, hand and foot. I never knew I could develop love for sculpture but something inside me was saying otherwise.
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It was an early evening and there weren’t crowds of tourists and touring this museum was one of the best museum experiences I’d had! It was queit and peaceful. The original of the statue of Marcus Aurelius was a centerpiece of one of the rooms and it looked incredible as I was sitting taking it in in a room with just a few people except us. I was overwhelmed with the amount of things I had yet to learn as I looked at all these sculptures, perpetually frozen pieces of life.
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The remains of the Temple of Jupiter got me in a pensive mood as well.. How come a city as superstitious as Rome used to be came to become the centre of Christianity…? With these things in mind, I left this part of the museum planning to check out the second one the next day.
Piazza del Campidoglio is a bellissima public space (as the name “piazza” suggests)! I felt a bit like a goddess sitting on top of Capitol Hill overlooking a busy city. People we saw coming out of a posh café looked as if they had just stepped out of a movie set or a fashion commercial. The Italian sense of fashion is internationally reverred and I could certainly see why. Eye-catching but not showy… A beautiful woman accompanied by a beautiful man… That was another facet of Italy I was yet to marvel at. Yes, from up here going to Rome seemed like the best thing we’d ever decided to do!
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It was time for an evening walk (passegiata) when we watched the sun set over the snow white National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II sometimes referred to as a “typewriter” or a “wedding cake”. It had a different energy to it but it didn’t seem to contradict the ancient Rome we’d been exposed to that day…
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The Trajan Forum views were stunning and I knew I was smart to agree to take this Ancient History lesson.
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Another bellissima meal, a walk back to the hotel, a late night gelato.
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Can I cheekily turn away to have another look at the Colosseum? Bonne Notte, Colosseo! Bonne Notte, Roma!

Vacanza Romana (Introduction and Day 1)

“Maybe we go to Rome?” “Well, that wouldn’t be my first choice really, but that could be how I will get a shot at making up for my poor Ancient History classes at school. So let’s do it!” That’s how it all started. I hoped that by suggesting this, my smart sister didn’t intend to make me feel stupid, because I did feel absolutely in the dark about the history of ancient Rome (the thought of the modern one and how utterly different it might have never occurred to me at the time!). My whole idea of Rome came down to the image of me in an Ancient History class at secondary school petrified by our History teacher, who was the principal at the time. Somehow the image of this man with a slightly authoritarian air to him really overshadowed the beauty of getting to know that world that I knew now shaped our civilization and I might go as far as to say, that it did the whole fact that I was able to sit here with a roof over my head typing this little story of mine and sharing it with people out there. I wish a 10-year-old me knew as she was standing there answering her lesson gasping for air under a horrid gaze of her History teacher that she would be stepping with her own feet on the land entrenched on a colossal scale with an enigmatic mix of ancient and modern. That’s I guess the beauty of life – you never know what will come your way but neither can you change what is already the past.
We were going on our first trip on our own! No more toxic or just plain quirky fellow-travellers, no more stress and strain of having to make it on time to catch up with everyone else equally overwhelmed with time constraints! We would be doing it on our own because we felt we had done enough of the above! And more importantly, no more coaches as we would be travelling on a… plane! A big big yes!!!! Sometimes we wish we could make time freeze and we were going to make seconds, minutes, hours and days it used to take us to travel float over the weightless sky along with hundreds of kilometers (or miles depending on which you are more accustomed to). That would be our other huge first! Defying the gravity and everything else we thought was not meant to be in this complicated life of ours! I never thought I would be travelling, let alone getting on a plane! I used to see it more than just a means of transport that only a privileged few have the luxury of using.
As I was reading up on Rome and thus making up for what I failed or was too young to comprehend back at school, I realized Ancient History can be fun or, as a teacher in me would say, a deeply educational experience! Why I found doing this essential was because as ignorant as I felt I was, I understood that the ancient rubble of Rome might be grossly overlooked in a rubble of ignorance. What I felt myself learning so keenly was opening my eyes to see, my ears to hear and my senses to feel. Seeing, hearing, feeling in another new way! Third time around in my life! That’s how I knew another adventure was coming and if I was lucky, I would be able to do it in a more profound way with no more strains and coaches! Nero, Caesar, Michaelangelo, Raffael… Don’t know why I should put those remarkable people in this particular order and I did my best to put together a whole string of other big names before and after. You are going to see later in my story why focusing intellectually on anything isn’t an easy thing to do while in Rome. Now my feet (wearing I already knew what) would be stepping on the land these people stepped and I knew I had to have the decency of at least finding out what they were and what moved them in contributing to what Rome is now and what it is we were about to find out! Each place on this Earth has its story to tell, whether an enchanting and fascinating, terrifying and horrible, educational and enlightening, moving and inspiring one or all of these. But there aren’t many places that can compare to Rome, with its grandeur and colossity making us take a glance at wires of times when we can’t comprehend life as we know it existed.
Were we ready to go? We were and I was hoping that would be the most enjoyable Ancient History class I’d ever had. This trip started off pretty much the same the first two did – packing, last-minute double-checking, getting on the train for Moscow. A day here that my sister originally regretted we had opted for got us started for whatever the place our plane was going to take us would bring. I know there are a lot of people out there who are petrified about flying and I’m happy to say I’m not a person to join the club! In fact, I realize that as I grow old, I get more curious about things and generally flirting with danger. So I didn’t see why I wouldn’t do this and to me it was an adventure in itself. You never know when your final day will arrive and I had a good feeling about that day and knew the odds were on my side.
After a hectic day in Moscow we got on the train for the airport and I was starting to feel part of “a privileged few”. It was almost midnight and the foolish me expected to see aircrafts shooting into the night sky as we approached the airport building but what I saw was an exaggerated version of life – people with their own individual stories coming and going probably with huge chunks of these stories packed into numerous suitcases whose wheels rattled against the ground as they touched it back. I was part of it now and there were certain rules to follow and I was wondering what my next step would be. It can all get so bewildering and confusing as you enter a new world. What we had to do was wait. Rome wasn’t built in a day after all… What if the flight got delayed or even worse, cancelled? All we knew was there was nothing we could do at that point. A funny thing about me is that I wasn’t afraid of getting into a plane crash and effectively, losing my life. What I knew I would be uncomfortable with though is getting my luggage and documents inspected. I knew in this respect I was no different from anyone else in this version of life but something about this whole process I find utterly appalling. I know this analogy might be totally wrong and out of place but it all stirred disturbing images of concentration camps in my head. I knew it was all being done for our own safety, but I just couldn’t help thinking of it as something humiliating. Looking back, I realize it should have been seen as something that just had to be done instead of overthinking it and making it a really big issue. Every step we had to take was new and I knew if I got to do it ever again, it should feel to have taken less long.
We got our luggage registered, our passports inspected and we found ourselves in another twirl of this exaggerated life – a duty-free area. There is something fascinating about this world indeed! Multilingual announcements calling names of places all over the world… As we were already queuing for boarding, I got the first glimpse of a real aircraft! It was right there, larger than life, its metal wings poised against the drowsiness of the early morning summer sky. It felt as if it was welcoming me to board this new life, so close and distant as a beautiful Hollywood fantasy. I was awestruck! It was a good while before we actually boarded our plane and it seemed a lot smaller than I had been imagining and felt like a means of travel after all. As I was stepping up the plane, I realized the next time I would step my foot on the ground I would be on the Italian soil! I felt doing something that Hollywood actresses do – turning around and giving Russia one last look before I set off! I thought I had to hold on to this feeling of romance doing this new thing brought because it would slip away if I ever did it again. When we were aboard, I got the first glimple of a few Italians in one space at a time and it felt good! There is something about our nationalities that defines us, something so discernible to an onlooker. Our pilot was giving us instructions in Italian and the enchanting music of this language at the moment sounded a bit terrifying because I was wondering how I would be handling it during my trip and how those beginner classes were probably of no use. It was time for a takeoff and I was focused on how it would feel physically and I had to sit there holding my breath before we finally took off! It felt as if my entire body was rocketed up into the sky filling my limbs with dull pressure. Once you are through that, you feel OK as you would back on the ground except that dull pressure occassionally penetrating your limbs making some of them feel really heavy. That was it, now I knew what being a lot of kilometers (miles) up in the air was like. I virtually had to remind myself where I was. Time does get another dimension when you are up there, feeling almost like a bird. Some two hours and a half later, we were getting ready for landing and I felt almost comfortable with instructions in Italian and them being repeated in hardly comprehensible English. Getting back down on the ground felt less dramatic and it seemed as though the plane landing and my feet were one whole system.
We say “Arrivederci!” to the steward and we say “Ciao, Roma!” Blue skies and hot air were my first feel of the bellissima Roma! The first indication of plenty of sunshine they get here was sun-tanned skin of maintenance staff on the runway, they were my first glimpse of Italians in Italy! Maintenance staff are the last people you see back home from the plane’s window and the first ones you see once you’ve safely arrived in a new land! So I decided I would make a point of focusing on them whenever I would happen to travel by plane again!
When we entered Fiumicino Airport, I was desperately looking around for more Italian faces because that seemed the only way I could make sure I was in Italy and the odds were on my side and I’d safely made it here on the… plane!!! There seemed to be mostly tourists in the passport control area and I loved how this whole procedure seemed more relaxed now. We got our bags in the baggage claim area and were getting ready to venture from the airport that seemed to be a less exaggerated version of life than Domodedovo in Moscow into Rome! I wanted to get some water and there was a kind of a shop and I had to make sure I remembered what the Italian for “water” was. There was a little queue and I had to tiptoe to see the counter and a group of gentlemen said “Prego!” and made way for me. Italians addressing me in Italian in Italy! For the first time! A joy only a language teacher can relish! We boarded a Terravision airport bus to get to the centre of the city. I was loving the air and mostly the trees! Imposing pine trees were the first landmark of Rome and that ancient world I’d been trying to get more knowledgeable about! There was nothing clearly indicative of the ancient times here and I had to let my imagination take over and that’s what I was to find out I would have to do a lot through the course of my trip. A bunch of girls who sounded Spannish were laughing and giggling all the way but I didn’t mind that as much as I would have had it been a bunch of Russians back home because it seemed to be giving an international twist of our experience of the Roman suburbs.
The moment I took a glimpse of a church, I knew we were in Rome! Sleepy cafes, a few Italian dons strolling the streets… There is something magical about a summer morning, something to be savour to be revitalized with a smoldering cup of coffee. This is what we were about to do when we arrived in Termini Train Station, an allegedly dodgy area of Rome infested with pickpockets. We were trying to be aware of our surrounding but a little breakfast to get us started on our way to our hotel was much-needed. I’d never thought of Italy as a country with glorious coffee… Pasta, cheese, wine but coffee? We got into this low-key eatery right at the train station, ordered an espresso and a croissant and Mama Mia, we were in Heaven! Right here surrounded by other travellers and probably locals served by two lovely Italian ladies, one of them older who made me think about an Italian household and a younger one. Jet-blackness of their eyes and divinely tasty coffee was my feel of Italy for the moment. They are moments like these when you see your own life as a movie and you feel like sitting back and saying “OK, so what’s next?” That is the sweetness of a beginning. It was us, Rome and a blank sheet between us and now we needed some gallaxies and universes to conspire to fill it with all colours of joy and Roman happiness. For now, we had them to thank for this glorious espresso (we made them two later on!)!
We were set to go find our hotel now which was said to be a 10-minute walk from the train station. Time took another dimension again and you would see why if you’d ever try walking in a summer Roman heat with a suitcase in your hand. I wasn’t grumbling but wanted to get this part of our Vacanza romana out of the way as soon as possible. I instantly taught my sister the Italian for “where” and she tried it on an Italian woman walking by and yes, she was understood but the problem was that the lady answered in Italian as well and all I could understand is “right” and “left” and that left me thinking of how people are supposed to make use of conversation books because saying something is one thing and understanding a response remains a problem not to be solved… We were walking these quite modern streets of Rome along Via Cavour till we made it to our hotel and that was a huge relief! It looked just as in photos on the Internet and I even recognized its reg rug! It was in a street in one of the oldest areas of Rome called Rione Monti just a short walk from the Colosseum! That was a small hotel in the 19th century building. It was about 10 a.m. when we made it there and we were afraid we woudn’t be able to check in so early. The lady at the reception desk was so lovely and her English was so good, I couldn’t help but complimenting it! I wish my students spoke it like she did! She offered us a coffee while she was checking us in and that was another brilliant coffee! I was getting used to that and I’d never cared for coffee too much (remembering how I felt sick on it back in Vienna). All we needed at the moment was a bath and a bed to lie in and what we saw when we got to the 2nd floor was a colossal room! We felt we were being treated as emperors!!! I tried to get some sleep. I’d been awake for over 24 hours and instead I was lying there listening to the sounds of this narrow Roman streets that would be my home for the next seven days. That matched my audio image of Italy…
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A while later we went out for our first walk along the area. We thought of taking a bus tour of the city for us to get an idea of the layout of the city. You really should get used to being near the seaside and how this affects the weather patterns. One minute the sun was shining and the next minute the sky was overcast with thick grey clouds. Before we knew it, it started raining heavily and we had to look for a place to hide. Oriental-looking people emerged from nowhere offering umbrellas to anyone running by. Did they have some secret weather agency? Anyway, I was standing under some building to shelter us from the rain taking in all those buildings. It was raining heavily and passionately… I was in Rome! It was my second time in Italy but it was only then that the feeling of it started kicking in… We decided it might be ages before the rain stopped so we made our way to the train station where we were hoping to hop on a tour bus as the rain was growing less heavy. The first glimpse of the astounding Santa Maria Maggiore as we are walking. After a few doubts, we got on a bus tour and our tour of the city began while we were still looking for a dry seat to take. Every place looks different in the rain and so did Rome. At the time I wish I had got my first glimpse of the Colosseum and a number of other places in the sizzling sunshine because its ancient enigma was blurred and it was increasingly hard to make it out and I found myself staring and thinking whether that was it and would my knowledge and mostly imagination be able to see through the darkness of ancient times washed out by a blur of the rain…? Some sights later after we were starting to have enough of listening to our audio guide squeaking from language to language, I saw a true landmark of Rome – St.Peter’s Dome! I’d read about it and how significant it was for Rome as the birthplace of Christianity and what it is now… I was taking it in but failed to see the colossity I’d been imagining it would necessarily have. Our bus stopped there so I was just sitting and staring waiting for the Dome to work its magic on me but it was time to go and it still didn’t… The river Tiber was tiny and a bit depressing flowing under the famous Castle St.Angelo… Was Rome overrated? I took comfort in the thought that I still had time to find that out…
It had stopped raining and we thought we would stay on the bus for another round but then we decided we’d better walk and explore the area around our hotel more. We took our first look at some souvenirs and felt it was now time for our first Roman dinner as the evening was setting in. Dinner is a really magical and tempting experience in the summer Rome. You really feel spoilt for choice with lots and lots of places offering varied menus and the beauty of people-watching. We picked a spot overlooking a big hotel called California. It seemed to be a family-run place, which is quite common for Italy. We were welcomed by a middle-aged lady who seemed couteous and nice. We were seated at a table next to a couple who seemed to be speaking French. Well, we were free to speculate where it was they could come from as they were unlikely to understand. That is really corrupting and you get used to it so quickly… A few vaguely familiar dishes on the menu caught my eye. Choices, choices… I went for a pasta because I couldn’t wait to try authentic Italian pasta and see for myself how different from what is served as one back home. We thought it would go down well with Vino della Casa (home-made wine). It was a dolce Roman evening, another movie-like scene in my life. Enjoying incredible pasta, sipping on a beautiful wine, breathing the air of what to me seemed la dolce vita and learning the Italian for “seafood” (scoglio) as we ordered another dish. We didn’t mind that couple next to us and even street hagglers offering some Asian shawls and one of them screaming frantically “How much? How much? How much?” at this woman next to us after she asked how much one of the items was and obviously wasn’t happy about the price. A senior man, who looked like the owner of the place, waved them off. He looked so elegant and smart with a great poise even though he seemed very elderly. Signore Italiano! Then we witnessed another show-stopping sight. A waiter from a place right across the road started doing a little dance right on the tram track and when he saw a tram approaching, he stepped out and the moment it was gone, he resumed his dance and asked a waitress to swing with him! What a sight! You would instinctively think there was something wrong with him or he was seeking some attention but I guess that was neither of these. I guess he was just living up, enjoying this beautiful summer evening in Rome… The art of enjoying life is something we definitely need to master…
After another round of wine and a little lesson in the art of enjoying life, we decided it was time to head back to our hotel. What a lovely night it was! We sat at the foot of one of 13 ancient obelisks of Rome in front of Santa Maria Maggiore church and I started contemplating on how lucky this nation was living in this superpowerful realm of art… It was everywhere, you just need to reach out and it’s there looking you in the eye, playing games with your intelligence and senses. I felt the art on me that night. Another movie-like scene? Si! When we almost made it to our hotel, I just had to turn back and I saw the Colosseum lit against the night starry sky… What a sight! Does that happen every day?! Don’t tell me travelling isn’t worth it! We wrapped up our first day in Rome with our first try of Italian gelato (icecream) in a shop right across the road from the hotel. Enjoying some views of typical Roman night life from our hotel window was my last wish for the day. Bonne Note, Roma!
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