Budapest (Day 2)

Jó reggelt! That was my first morning in Hungary and it started with the view of the beautiful clear sky I saw through my hotel window. There is this sultry yet sensual element of carelessness to mornings spent at hotels as you expect to get things done rather than do them yourself as part of your daily morning ritual. As our TV was on to give us a quick update on the international news, before I put my contact lenses on, I had to squint my eyes to see a very tragic footage coming from the central Italy that had just been hit by a horrible earthquake that had left over two hundred people dead. The rescue operations were ongoing and it was really devastating to see those medieval streets, which would normally have this dolce feel about them beckoning you to come for sun-kissed skin, full of rubble instead. So many holidays have to have a flavor of Italy to them somehow, but that was one that wasn’t meant to be savoured at all. It was so bizarre to be leaving behind this bello country which is an epitomy of felicita and allegria, to enjoy this day in the sunny Budapest and being here in Europe made the news feel more acute and urgent. Down at the café where we were to have our breakfast, there were already people that seemed to come from all over the globe occasionally looking up from their plates to see the TV screen bringing the same news program. That was a nice substantial breakfast with a vague German feel to it as we were welcomed to treat ourselves to some sausages and eggs. Attempting to listen in on a conversation in German being had at the next table caused this flavor to be yet more pronounced.

That was going to be a day of exploring the city and we set out to get a comprehensive introduction to it by doing a free walking tour. It was getting really hot as we were making our way to St.Stephen’s Basilica picking up from the beautiful memories of sitting in front of it the night before. I love seeing major tourist sites transforming throughout the day and this place did seem to have a more brisk and vibrant feel to it as there were people crowding in front of the cathedral obviously for their tours as well. We weren’t the only having this day all to ourselves and not having to be suffocated by the same weight of the daily routine. We had some time to spare before our tour was scheduled to begin and to watch people creating a beautiful sense of the Italian “piazza” just basking in the sun and sitting on the stairs of St.Stephen’s Basilica. Our guide, an energetic young lady, introduced herself briefly telling about how the city that originally consisted of Buda and Pest and united in 1837. We were currently in the more modern Pest from where getting to Buda where this girl was working for an air company took her around 20 minutes. It is actually great to hear stories of ordinary locals to give you a quick reality check. I think being a tour guide is an amazing thing these people volunteer to do beyond their main jobs. Then we were asked to turn back to see the Fat Policeman Statue inspired by someone who was said to have had love for food and women (it’s a quite universal kind of love I think) and you need to rub his belly for luck in love and in finding hearty food to nourish your stomach with. None of us seemed to have any trouble with the latter as we were all in the city known for its hearty substantial food.

It wasn’t too long before we reached the spectacular Danube Promenade spanning from the Chain Bridge to Elizabeth Bridge offering views of Buda after we got some tips on the nicest bars to go to, things to try, etc. To me the view lent the city a subtle charm of a sea resort with lots of emerald green spaces dominated by the tall Liberty Statue on the Gellért Hill, the castle looming at the top and the Danube to match of course. Even with the Liberty Statue, an indication of the turbulent relationship between the Soviet Union and Hungary, in sight, there was no way a thought about the Soviet past we shared would have crossed my mind. A few luxurious hotels were lining up the embankment as well giving a perspective into the Budapest of the rich and famous who had stayed there at some point of their glorious careers. Now what I was mainly thinking of was soaking up in traditional baths, the smoldering hot heritage of the Ottoman rule, taking advantage of the city’s vivid and diverse history. Sitting on the railway here amidst all this royal-like beauty and splendour in the hot sun of Budapest was the Little Princess that is said to be one of the most photographed statues in the city. The sculptor got inspired by his daughter who used to love to dress up as a princess. That in a way summed up the way I for one felt walking here with the crown of knowledge and enlightenment that travelling gloriously poises on us leaving us with a dreamy-like sense of empowerment. The views of the Chain Bridge massaged my dreamy side with another gentle touch taking me to London for a tiny second. We were to cross it to get to Buda to see the castle.

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It was getting scorching hot and we knew that might not be the most comfortable time to visit but as the summer was about to bid its farewell, being here amidst that Hungarian heat won us some more time before we eventually said our goodbyes to this season that invariably has a dreamy-like feel to it. We found ourselves at the other side of the Danube watching funiculars taking people all the way up to the castle hill. No thoughts of the Soviet past yet again… The sun was beating down as we were standing in front of the Sándor Palace, the official residence of the President. The Buda Castle with its amazing reconstructed dome matching the emerald shade gloriously painted by the Danube wasn’t given much attention to as it now merely housed the Hungarian National Gallery and Budapest History Museum. I thought the castle wasn’t much part of the national pride or that was me who expected it would be as I’m hugely drawn to castles in general for this sentimental yet grand feel of the past they provide. We could enjoy a majestic view of the symbol of the country, which is the Turul, a large bird of prey, spreading its wings against the capital’s clearest sky. A legend has it that this bird came to a woman in her dream and made her pregnant with a baby that went on to lead the Hungarian tribes to their new home. This having been said right here at this moment did seem a bit funny as “making love” to this bird was a bit too much even for a dream…

Anyway, I believe that the postcard views of the Parliament from up here made all of us stop questioning the credibility of the legend and let what we saw in front of us flirt and eventually seduce our vision to make us succumb to its charms. You want to take a while enjoying moments like this one when all the illuminating rays of knowledge and your expectations of it come together making it a moment to last in your memory.

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But as we were in a group, we didn’t get a proper chance to as it was time to make our way further up to the Fisherman’s Bastion. Before we reached the snow white neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque beauty that I was sure had to do with the Ottoman rule here in Hungary, after enjoying some views from more angles and walking an array of houses that rendered Budapest a bit different feel, we made a quick stop in front of the Statue of Andras Hadik, Hungary’s most famous hussar. They believe you have to climb up to rub the testicles of his horse for good luck and according to the guide, this is what a lot of students come here to do. This is truly what we need to grab our chances by indeed. The guide seemed a bit ashamed to be showing us how it is normally done and looked around her to make sure no one was trying to take a picture, but I can’t see why she had to.

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We found the area to be home to a few lovely cafes and restaurants that seemed to offer a retreat from the more touristy part of the city. I felt part of something quintessentially international when I saw an Italian restaurant owned by Jamie Oliver, a famous British chef that I happened to see during another session of watching the British TV channels while embracing my innermost passion for media and journalism. I assumed that place would be a bit too “posh” and expensive to visit but it was nice to see it up and running here in Budapest. Another thing the city takes pride in is its confectionery traditions owing to the Habsburg rule. We were said that the cake that we saw displayed at the Ruszwurm pastry shop offering a new form of seduction to sweet tooths was the winner of “Cake of Hungary” competition that annually takes place on the state’s birthday on August 20 (just a few days before we arrived). That was a beautiful sweet representation of the national flag that we thought we might want to savour after our tour was over.

Straight up in front of us our eyes were treated to a marvelous view of the Matthias Church that seemed to have a bit of paprika sprinkled on its imposing Gothic façade. There are things we think we might get desensitized to while travelling and being repeatedly exposed to but churches will hardly ever make it to this list even for someone non-religious as myself. I love seeing the decorative representation of religion as an integral part of culture displayed to generate feelings and sensations of a varying nature. Some atoms and molecules were working their magic at that moment for me as well.

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I could still feel them in progress as we made it further to get a closer look at the Fisherman’s Bastion that to me seemed to have a distinctive Turkish flavour to it even though in fact it didn’t. It’s a good thing I had no idea about that at the time because who knows if there had been magic happening otherwise… I felt as if I was a part of some Eastern fairytale invited to join the action climbing up and down to get the views of the city from different angles as were hundreds of other visitors. That was where our tour was to come to an end and that had been a really enjoyable one with a reasonable amount of walking and talking and there’s not much to satisfy a traveler. Well done to our guide!

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As it was getting increasingly hot, we thought we might want to take a seat in the shade to take in the view of the Parliament that we were in a way becoming desensitized to. Or maybe we weren’t. That had to be part of the magic anyway. I remember getting a bit manic with my camera zooming in and out trying to find that perfect angle for my touristic lens. The views in front of my eyes and my camera were colliding into what would inadvertently be a beautiful and endearing memory of Budapest’s most iconic view. As we were enjoying our break, we got saluted by a cute fellow traveler who had just been on the walking tour with us.

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We thought it was now time to recharge our batteries and get some lunch at one of the cafes where we could get a view of the Matthias Church as going all the way down to the Danube would take a while. We had a beautiful chicken and vermicelli served with the traditional Hungarian pickled cucumbers but the most incredible thing about that lunch was the famous Tokaji wine. I was getting increasingly aware and accepting of the preoccupation with this drink in some of the countries I had visited but none of the wines I’d had and was learning to keep a palate memory of would compare to what I was sipping on that sunny clear late afternoon taking in the view of the Matthias Church and people coming and going on my right. Here is a sweet toast to a lot more memories to make and treasure and to my new favourite! Having a favourite wine brand even if not being able to get hold of it at any time is comforting and anchoring against stress. A perfect meal has to finish with a dessert and for that we headed back to that pastry shop that had the nation’s best cake. Well, it was challenging and not really of any luck trying to explain what exactly we were after but I think we got something that looked like it after all. The Austrian feel was in the air and well steaming in our elegant coffee cups. Owned by a famous Hungarian confectionery dynasty, that place was very authentic and old in an endearing and romantic sense. I was definitely in need of more of that in my life. That’s one of these subtle little things that keeps me falling in love with Europe over and over again.

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Having had our confectionery cravings gratified in that very refined manner, we started our way down to the Danube through rather deserted streets. The views of the Chain Bridge we had as we descended were the ones to let linger in our vision so we took a seat on a bench facing all the touristy action and guarded by two majestic lions peering in front of them at both ends of the bridge, I was having a refreshing drink. “Can I be in London just like that?” That thought was nothing of a surprise as this first permanent bridge across the Danube was designed by a group of British engineers. I had my travelling dream and ambition replicated for me and that was heavenly in all ways!

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The walk across the bridge was yet even more impressive as we had the majestic views of the Buda Castle and its gorgeous dome on the right and the Parliament on the left. The Pest side was just as we left it a few hours ago bustling with people and a few luxurious hotel building lining the Danube embankment.

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We walked left to get a closer look at the Parliament and soon found the Shoes on the Danube, a memorial paying a touching tribute to the Jews who were made to take off their shoes before they were shot and eventually fell into the Danube… That was a moment of grim silence and that was that tiny little bit we could do to stay connected with the past we weren’t in control of…

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It was now time to take countless photos of the Parliament while properly marveling at its grandeur and beauty. The building designed to mark the 1000th anniversary of Hungary in 1896 was splendid and arrested our views for impressively long. A talented architect does have some superpowers to enchant, mesmerize and fascinate. I was held in sheer awe trying to compare what I had gorgeously spreading in front of me and those pictures I’d seen of it. Some cars driving by seemed a bit out of place amidst this glorious piece of architecture that appeared like one from all different angles. On our left we had something no less mesmerizing to watch – the sunset over the Danube, a subtly romantic and charming scene.

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It would have been even more so if we hadn’t had a pushy senior gentleman following us and saying something obviously incomprehensible to us. I had to have a little thought of the Soviet past we had to share somehow and I guess that only had to do with his age as he seemed someone who had had a fair share of communism in his life. Anyway, I thought right there in this spot with the lovely sunset and the side of the Parliament in front of us was the right place to call home and speak a bit in another language incomprehensible to some strangers here. For some reason we had the same nasty man approaching us again after it had been a while since our first encounter. That really agitated my sister and we crossed into the square in front of the Parliament happily with no sight of this horrible man. As perfect as the place seemed to be, our judgments of people can’t be so clear-cut at all. I tried to focus more on this beautiful area surrounding the Parliament with large flowerbeds. I couldn’t help noticing a couple walking by and a man cheekily picking up one of the flowers and presenting it to his female companion. I had no idea why but I thought about Italy the second time round that day… For all I know, he might have been Italian for bringing this charming bit of romance and spontaneity to this evening in Budapest. Transformations, manipulations in our minds and hearts – that is where they are sure to originate…

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As if I hadn’t had enough, I had a few more photos in front of the Parliament to round off my time with it for that day because I felt a sinister  Parliament overdose was impending!

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We had a familiar walk through semi-deserted streets towards St. Stephen’s Cathedral and thought we might want to grab our drinks at one of the places recommended by the tour guide earlier today but the area was really bustling with people having fun as opposed to the one surrounding the Parliament.

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That’s really the case with Budapest where you would find streets going from slightly uncomfortably deserted to incredibly and perhaps annoyingly bustling. My sister insisted we found somewhere quieter for our late dinner and that is how we ended up at a lovely place where we thought we could be offered a selection of local dishes. We just had to keep a bit off Váci utca, one of the main tourist streets in the city that we assumed would be overpriced. There weren’t too many people here and neither was the place empty. Looking for a place to eat has to be a bit intuitive after all. The famous Hungarian goulash soup had to be tried along with a shot of pálinka, a fruit brandy. It was amazing that we had our goulash served in a large paprika-red pan that was designed to look slightly overused. Some group of men having reasonably loud conversations and not worthy of giving any extra attention to while enjoying our unreasonably nourishing dinner matched the ambiance of this night filled with the juicy smell of paprika-rich goulash and the drink leaving the burning sensation in my stomach. That summed up my current feel of the country – a bit rough, spicy and conspicuous (inspired by the location of the eating place). We had a bit of a melting pot feel as well as we saw a man working at a currency exchange place putting a sign that read something like “It’s time for a prayer, I’ll be back soon”. Happily filled with food, we walked slowly back to our hotel where we took very little time to fall asleep after the wonderful substantial meal. There had been so much we’d done and as much as we are craving for more magic to unravel, sleep is an essential element to help it along. Jó éjszakát.

Arrivederci, Roma!

It was our final day here in Rome. We packed our things and checked if there was anything we had left behind. I did leave my spare pair of shoes behind – I didn’t want to leave! That was it – our beautiful hotel room will become someone else’s beautiful retreat a few hours later. I was already jealous of them! There is something personal and impersonal about hotel rooms at the same time – it might feel as home in a place you are coming to love but it might be baffling just thinking about the number of people who had resided here before. Anyway, whoever they would be, I wished them a great time in the magnificent Eternal City! We arranged with the lovely lady at the reception desk who checked us in on our first day to leave our bags that had grown heavy at the luggage room. It caused us a bit of a laugh as this room looked more like a renovated bathroom but we didn’t mind that much as long as our suitcases were safe in here.
We didn’t have a hotel room but we could have Rome till the late afternoon. My sister suggested we picked up on what we hadn’t got to do the day before – see the mysterious St.Teresa in Ecstasy in Santa Maria della Vittoria. Well, I thought that would be something I would have to leave till I probably came again as I might not find my way there but my sister was in the mood to go so we went! It was a short walk from our hotel. It was early so there were few people in the church. I had been really fascinated by the story behind this sculpture by Bernini. It was in the opening scene of the BBC documentary about about him. It depicts a Spanish nun stabbed with God’s arrow and the state she is in is so intense and it really shows in her face. It’s stunningly sensual and to me it reveals another astonishing aspect of religion taking it out of the traditional context. There are so-called “theatre boxes” on either side showing people watching Teresa as she is getting increasingly aroused by this sensation. It is really extraordinary how Bernini seemed to have challenged the way religion is seen as something shying away from anything explicitly sensual. Staying in this back-door church with a great view of this sensual sculpture was wonderful! We had done that!
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We headed along the familiar streets to Piazza della Republica and enjoyed some more of the morning Rome. A part of us was still here and another part knew we would be leaving a few hours later… We checked out a little market and got some things at the staggering 1 Euro! We walked to Piazza del Quirinale and admired some last views of the Dome from up here. Did I really have to leave? It felt more like piecing the memories together now rather than making them…
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We owed a visit to the Pantheon and that was what we did passing by the snow white monument again… Piazza della Rotunda was just as a few days ago – bustling and busy.When you enter this extraordinary ancient building, all you feel an urge to do is to look up. Yes, this dome! Only the Dome that we had previously admired can compare to it! Just look at the light coming through! It was nothing like I’d seen so far! It wasn’t a church, neither did it feel like a public building. There were tombs of some famous Italians – Vittorio Emanuele II, Raphael… I felt the significance of experiencing this most famous ancient building. It made for a perfect last sight to explore…
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We went to the famous Tazza D’Oro coffee shop for our final coffees. We didn’t expect to be able to afford much but the prices were surprisingly reasonable and the service provided was amazing! Coffees were served from a bar and that’s how Italians prefer it. The staff were very efficient, I have to find out how they pull all of this off – being quick, having a chit-chat with each other, smiling at you, stopping the cutlery from almost falling down and looking drop dead gorgeous! Italian men, I salute you again! The coffee was the best I’d ever tried, by the way! And we got some to take back home. Italians and coffee certainly mix!
A walk back from the Pantheon through the familiar streets till we were back to the crossroad of ages – Via dei Fori Imperiale – to get final views of the snow white Vittorio Emmanuel II Monument where we used to sit almost every night watching the sun go down to give it a pinkish shade. One night right here facing this landmark monument, I got to chatting with a middle-aged Italian and he asked me where I was from and I wished I had been able to scrape my limited Italian together for this but he spoke fluent English and he assumed I had been walking all day (and he used the tense correctly!) and suggested it would be a good idea to come back next summer to see some more. I was sure I had to take his advice on board and come back right here to have a longer conversation and probably in Italian! Yes, it is like music to the ears! I had been in Italy before once but I didn’t really get to hear much of it but now I felt I HAD been in Italy! With my heart, my mind, my eyes, my ears and my palate. More views of the Forum and we were back to our hotel to get our suitcases.
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We had a sweaty walk to the railway station to catch a bus to the airport. That was it now… Arrivederci, Roma! A few hours later after standing in line of mostly grumpy countrymen we got on our plane home and there back in Moscow early in the morning. I felt like in a dream oblivious of where I am and who I am… I was experiencing Rome withdrawal symptoms.

One of the things I learnt on this trip was that travelling on your own is amazing and it offers you a whole lot more than being with a group. Doing things at our own pace, walking the streets of Rome enjoying its surprisingly changing weather patterns, resting your feet whenever they take you (usually they were these “public living-rooms” – piazzas), people-watching letting your eyes feast on the world-famous Italian beauty and style just to get inspired to live, to love, to create… Italians seem to take it all to another level. Yes, Rome might not be the cleanest city and the reason behind smiles and charm might have to do with people trying to make a living in tough economic condition but that doesn’t take away from the pure joy of being in the Eternal City and getting your idea of what dolce vita is… It’s there – in the resilience of incredibly ancient buildings, the sun going up and down the Roman sky, a steaming cup of espresso, an irresistable stare of a handsome Italian’s eyes, the overwhelming amount of beauty per square meter… It’s all the art, the art of living life and you want to come again and again to learn more. Italy is a summertime romance I will never forget and I hope I will get infatuated again and again! Bellissima!

Spiritual Rome

Our last full day in Rome started off sunny and warm and looked like a perfect day to explore more of Rome’s extraordinary fountains as I’ve already mentioned I have a great love for them. We checked our guidebook and came up with the itinerary for the day. We walked around “our” neighbourhood (it did really felt like ours at that point, it was an amazing place to get back to after a hectic day of enchanting discoveries). The area around the fountain where we’d hang out before going back to our hotel was empty now.
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And then out of the blue, the sky grew overcast and a dull rain began to fall making it a “perfect” day to explore the fountains. It was a celestial fountain now that prompted us to start making new decisions about the day. As we realized, it wouldn’t be wise to head out somewhere far, we stuck with “our” area and ended up not far from the Cavour metro station where I saw the signs for Saint Peter in Chains Church known for housing one of Michaelangelo’s unfinished works. We decided we would go see it as we wouldn’t staying outside anyway. We went down to an underground passage where we heard a man playing “L’Italiano vero”. It sounded good! Bravissimo! The church had a humble façade and wasn’t really imposing inside except for one massive masterpiece on the right – Michaelangelo’s statue of the Moses. Michaelangelo was commissioned to design a tomb for Pope Julius II but he never finished it. After his death, his assistants had to piece it all together according to Michaelangelo’s instructions. It had been intended to be a lot more tremendous. But anyway what we saw was really awe-inspiring. It was a very rich experience to see it here in this intimate setting without crowds of tourists. You have to pay 1 Euro to light up the sculpture for a better look at it. It’s one of the things I find utterly hypocritical about church and how they try to charge people for everything, but at the end of the day everyone has to make a living somehow (especially during the economic recession, you can’t just pray for God to put an end to it). We went further to the altar to see Peter’s chains that are said to have held Peter while he was in the Mamertine Prison here in Rome and that’s one of the ends of it that let loose as Peter was saved by an angel. There were some people praying here but being a non-believer would not raise eyebrows. It felt comfortable to be in here and that had nothing to do with deity. What made me emotional was seeing a man on a wheelchair being helped out of the building. His family must have gone to all this trouble of taking him here for him to see the Moses. I have no clue why but I felt like crying… That’s the power of art indeed!
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We went outside but it just wouldn’t stop raining. The weather was having its way (doesn’t it always?). We needed a spiritual shelter to protect us against the rain again and we made for Santa Maria Maggiore, one of Rome’s oldest and best-preserved churches. That was where I was sitting savouring my first Roman evening… It seemed like it was yesterday really! There were people crowding inside – another beautiful thing about Rome is that whenever you need a shelter, you can get inside plentiful churches for warmth and comfort regardless of your religious beliefs. The interior of the church was just breathtaking. I felt in heaven peering at the gilded ceiling. I sat on a bench to rest my feet without taking my eyes off the ceiling with my PC in my hands to guide me through the church. I stepped out the rainy technology-savvy world outside into some enigmatically comforting spirituality but I also brought a piece of it along with me and I was at peace enjoying the best of both worlds. It is the most important church honouring the Virgin Mary and there is an icon dedicated to her. I got my Mum an icon here too as I thought it would be the most suitable place to do that. Virgin Mary is a mum and we all look up to our mothers for comfort, guidance and protection (unless we’re in Rome where there are churches to do that for us). We all get a bit religious when it comes to our mothers… It takes a saint person to love a child unconditionally and see them through good and bad times for them to find their path in life. This is what this church celebrated for me – sacred motherhood.
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We went outside to find that the rain still wouldn’t stop and decided to do a little shopping. I noticed that most shop assistants in Rome are male and that makes the whole experience more pleasurable. It was amazing to get something other than souvenirs to take back home. Splashing in my bathtub using all these wonderful products thinking back to those beautiful days… No, it wasn’t my past yet, there were more memories to be made and good times to be had before we left the next day. The Roman rain wanted to linger on our skin for a little longer. All the spirituality of the morning made us hungry so we went to this lovely place across the road from our hotel and watched an international crowd there. It is nice to watch people mingling and interacting in a casual social setting. There were two elderly ladies with backpacks who looked British as they seemed a bit awkward and kept saying “Sorry!”. Being on the road must be a key to staying young after all! I was trying to stop myself from feeling reminiscent again as I was enjoying my home-made pasta and sipping on my wine. It just had to clear up and eventually it did and we headed straight to the Colosseum after a short break at our hotel. No, we were already reminiscent as I believe we wanted more of this iconic Roman landmark before we left. It was a totally different feeling to be walking by it now that we had been here for almost a week. I was trying to imagine what it felt to a local passing it by on a daily basis. We’d already been inside so there was no more pressure now. So now yes, it was just there – the magnificent and fragile Colosseum! What is life just outside it? It’s pretty much like everywhere else – there are people going about their daily lives, some tourists taking photos, men (and a large proportion of them are handsome) on their bikes strutting their stuff in gorgeous clothes. I couldn’t resist taking a photo of one against the Colosseum! We stayed for a bit in the park just across the road with a beautiful view of the colossal building. There was a group of dodgy-looking teenagers on a stroll but I realized there were people like this everywhere (the historical backdrop of the ancient times didn’t stop them). Other than that, it felt peaceful in this little park. Except that we got the Colosseum on the left…
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We decided to get on with our day of pilgrimage and made our way to San Giovanni Laterano, the first Christian church in Rome opened in 318 A.D. It was within a walking distance from the Colosseum but was a bit tricky to find. My sister was the one to brave the mazes of the streets that led to what used to be the city walls. I am rubbish at navigating the streets but I’m fairly good at making memories! The neighbourhood looked a bit isolated and there were just a few people around. There were yellow leaves on these lonely streets but I wasn’t ready to look into the future just for now. The moment we saw an Egyptian obelisk, we knew we’d got there as they were originally designed to guide pilgrimages. The one we saw was the tallest in Rome. There was a French-speaking family walking in front of us and it was funny to watch a little girl walking behind her parents taking photos without them even looking back to check on her. That was a different parenting pattern and it seemed to be working as the kid was obviously having a good time! This area felt different from what we had seen so far. The exterior of the church didn’t look too impressive (or were we getting used to seeing beauty all around?) and there were some nagging street sellers offering us books in Russian! No, thanks! The interior did look imposing even though I felt considerably more comfortable in Sante Maria Maggiore (or had I had enough of the churches for the day?). It was really large and walking around was like walking along a piazza. My sister needed to use a bathroom and she joined a queue outside it and the cleaning lady really surprised me when I heard her say that someone “made a shower” and my sister was the last one in the queue. She said it in a fairly good English! It felt a bit funny to be watching people queuing up to use the bathroom in a famous church but that is only natural. We went outside in a while to watch people in a different kind of a queue – to kneel over the famous stairs that Jesus Christ was said to have climbed. It wasn’t funny but it seemed a bit weird anyway. I wonder what kind of effect this had on believers and their faith. Did it hurt?
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We planned to see Basilica of San Clemente with its underground labyrinths but we failed to find it as hard as we tried. We dropped in to one of the churches that seemed to be right at this spot but it was a wrong church. We quickly made our way back. We were now on a mission to find the Via XX Settembre street that according to the map ran all the way through the Termini Station area. 20 September was the day marking Italy Unification and that, by chance, was my birthday! The Italian Republic and myself shared a birthday!
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It was not a touristy street and there were business-looking people all around. I was happy to be here. There were some state institutions and we felt a bit like aliens. There were a lot of shops selling clothes as well, especially fur. Who would need fur in Rome? Right, Russians! There was one last church that we wanted to find – Santa Maria della Vittoria as there was a really interesting piece of art by Bernini called St.Teresa in Ecstasy. But there was a service there so we couldn’t get in even though a polite homeless man let us in. “Well, maybe some other time”, we thought… There was a splendid fountain of the Moses (yes, remember what the mission for the day originally was?). It looked massive! It was like an elaborate painting with water streaming down it. Very impressive! We headed further to get on with our original mission to Piazza Barberini with Fountain of Bees by Bernini. The bee was the symbol of the Barberini family, hence the name. Before we checked out this famous fountain, we popped into a shop in the square to get some Italian food and drinks to take back home. The choice was really varied and an Asian shop assistant spoke amazing English. She offered me to try some garlic sauce and it tasted so good and I wish I had bought it. There was some very strong drink on sale that could cause you to hallucinate if you take too much (no use saying this to Russians!) and two men asked if it was safe to drink it in small portions. Before answering, the shop assistant asked where they came from and they said they are from Norway. “Aw, you can!”, she said. We all had a laugh about it! Well, she didn’t know where we came from… Stocked up on some pasta, spices and drinks, we went into a chemist’s to get some beauty products and found ourselves totally overwhelmed with a whole range of products for men! In Russia you don’t get this kind of variety (well, it shows when you walk down the streets of our country). There is normally a large section for women and a tiny little section for men. Yes, you have to invest in those looks, they don’t come for free! Italian men, I salute you! You make it all seem so effortless but now we know your secret! Piazza Barberini was a nice square with a relatively busy traffic. I was sitting there watching a helicopter up in the sky and the last thing I wanted was to get on one the next day…
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The late evening was settling in and it really hit us that was our last night in Rome… Night is indeed the most romantic time and it makes the thought of having to say goodbye simply unbearable… It is like parting with your summertime love that you had known all along wouldn’t last forever but that hardly makes getting over it any easier. Why did you have to look so beautiful tonight, Rome? I felt like an accomplished photographer looking at photos of you I took that night. Did you shine your extra light just for me to realize how happy I had been? You will be in my heart forever no matter what my regular landscape is! One last look at my snowwhite monument, more romantic songs to hear being played in the street… There was a spectacular light show in Trajan’s Forum showcasing the ancient Roman history with its main events projected onto the ancient buildings. Bravissimo! That was a kind of lesson worth travelling all this way for! I felt like shedding a tear…
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It was time for a farewell dinner in a cosy restaunrant overlooking Via Cavour. The waiter seemed to take an instant liking to my sister (well, Italian men will be Italian men!) but she said she was leaving the next day… Yes, we were. Scusi… A farewell gelato, a farewell look at the Colosseum at night… I was so reluctant to go to bed that night because there might not be another Roman night in my life. Well, I guess we need to count our blessings and be thankful for whatever we already have as a memory… It was so sad to be asked by a friendly Asian guy at the reception desk whether we needed a taxi for the airport for the next day… I even started missing him wishing me good night every night… Yes, he remembered it would all have to end so soon. But we have half of tomorrow with you, Rome! Bonne Notta!

The Holy Vatican

Buongiorno! We were going to spend this rainy day in the smallest country in the world, the Vatican. We made an extra effort to make sure we looked appropriately as we were about to visit the birthplace of Catholicism. I had mixed feelings as I’m not a believer. But there is one thing I noticed during my stay in Rome – they see religion as one of the parts of their multi-faceted culture , without giving it any specific prominence. Just as the other night, we felt free to enter a Catholic church without having our beliefs (our disbeliefs for that matter) questioned. No one would force you to convert to what seems to be at odds with your perception of the world. All you are asked to do is show some respect. Therefore I decided I would make it an experience to nurture the spiritual side of me in the place full of opulence and grandeur. Educating myself to become a better me – that was my religion!
That was an early start for us. We walked to the metro station through the puddly Via Nazionale that was still queit at this time of morning. That was a new colour of Rome for me – calm and drizzling as if about to delve into the serenity of prayer… I see prayer as a tool powerful enough to prompt us to believe in the celestial strength of our own voices to reach out to whatever we believe is high above. We hopped on the metro and it was not busy and I discreetly watched the people on the car figuring out who they might be and what they were up to at this early hour. There was a group of friends who seemed to be American and one of them got off the car at the wrong station and got back onto it before the doors closed as his friend started yelling “What are you doing?” I thought that would be a perfect example for the use of the Present Continuous! I just love it how grammar comes alive in actual communication. We got off at Ottaviano Metro Station and made our way towards the walled enclave of Vatican City. We were still in Italy. There’s no physical border between Italy and the Vatican and as we had a reservation for a guided tour, we were lucky to skip the soaking-wet lines of people and after an awkward interaction with an Asian-looking man made our way inside. We were in the Vatican! Just as simple as that! I had imagined an elaborate security check but there wasn’t any at all! Welcome to the spiritual capital of the world! So far I felt comfortable here being a non-believer and deep down inside I knew I would. We had a tour of the Vatican Gardens booked. You will be denied an admission unless you are on a guided tour as it is the Pope’s property. It felt as a privilege to be allowed into this private and mysterious world entangled in religion, business and politics. We met our Italian guide and joined a group of about 20 tourists from all over the world. We went through the security accompanied by our guide and encountered the rainy sky of the Vatican.
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We were warned we would have to keep up with the group as walking the area on your own might alert the security. We got the views of the Vatican Museums and awe-inspiring views of the Dome of course – just like nowhere else! It was a majestic close up and we were really very-very close to it!
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It was a beautiful area perfect for reflections. We walked past extraordinary fountains (remember about my fascination for them), grottos. It felt as a very secluded and personal tour as there seemed to be no one around except us. There’s so much more to this place than we can fathom and so much still remains unrevealed to wider audiences. Religion is a very dark and obscure business after all. We will never find out what kind of conspiracies have been plotted outside these walls for hundreds of years. For the moment our business was to enjoy our tour and remember this moment to treasure just like all the unique moments of our travels.
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This lush green area offered a lot for us to see – the Pontifical Academy of Science, a replica of the Lourdes Grotto in France. The beauty of the space might be enough to induce an atheist to convert… The smallest state also boasts its own radio station and a railway station!
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That was a tiny microcosm of life and it was amazing to take a sneaky peek at what is going on behind those walls. Everything had a profound significance and meaning for religious people all over the world. I don’t resent religion as long as it is presented as one of the aspects of culture and that is what it was here. Here was a group of nuns taking a leisurely “passegiata”. They were the only people to remind us of the world outside at the moment.Our two-hour tour was coming to an end and so was our time in that private area of the Vatican that occupies over a half of its total area. Russians find it particularly hard to think of territories in such miniature terms. I’m not religious but I’d toured one of the most private corners of the Vatican! I was sticking with my own religion I thought…
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Now it was time to visit the extraordinary Vatican Museums. We needed a brief recharge first and went down to the cafeteria. The place was packed with tourists and I found myself wondering how many of them were actually religious and does one really have to be while visiting the Vatican…? My sister was being grumpy about crowds of people around and desperately needed some coffee to recharge her energy levels. Just the other day I was mistaken for an Italian and this time around I was mistaken for a Spanish by a Spanish girl who was desperate to find the ticket office and there was a bit of misunderstanding and I ended up giving her the wrong directions and I’m genuinely sorry about that. My sister was perking up a bit and we headed towards the Museums and found ourselves just outside the Vatican post office surrounded by people writing cards. It was before I started a newly-found hobby of mine, which is postcrossing. Basically what you do there is you send cards to random people all over the world and get cards back from other random people, it’s a lot of fun! It was my first time speaking Italian as I addressed a man at the desk asking him if he spoke English. It’s such a great feeling knowing how a simple sentence in a new language can boost your confidence! Yay, he understood what I’d just said!!! I posted two cards – to my parents and my wonderful teacher who I know will be reading this! My cards safely reached the recipients so the Vatican Post is efficient! So our tour began. The area is just immense! The scale of the collection is unthinkable! We started off with the Ancient World. The first exhibit on display to remind us of inevitability of the end was a mummy of an individual who died about three millenia ago! That’s how it all ends. Was there by any chance anyone in this room remotely related to this person whoever they were? I’m not sure being here on display for thousands of people to scrutinize was their idea of an idyllic afterlife… The Egyptian sculptures were magnificent and made me eager to set out on an educational tour of the country.
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We got a nice view of the famous “Sphere within Sphere” by Arnoldo Pomodoro in the court through an open window. Yes, that was a more open side of the Vatican many of us are familiar with.
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Now we were off to Greece known for its tremendous influence on the culture of the Romans. “The Apollo Belvedere” sculpture was the highlight of this section. The statue of Lacoon was awe-inspiring as well as the Belvedere Torso. Greece was on my list of countries to visit. The map gallery gave us a feel for different regions of Italy. Now it was time for the period that saw the rebirth of the ancient tradition – the Renaissance. The Raphael Rooms displayed the climax of this glorious period dealing with beauty in ways embracing the remote past. “The School of Athens” featuring the VIP’s of science and art was a marvellous piece of art to exaimine close up. It was really humbling.
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Of course the central piece of the collection pushing all the rest into the oblivious background is the Sistine Chapel. All roads seem to lead to it making you feel as if you were on an ultimate mission to check it out and leave. The signs for it are everywhere. I had done a bit of research into how it was created and appreciated the sheer scale of work put in by the genius Michelangelo. I know that works of art that are propelled into a cult tend to disappoint. They are all made to be enjoyed privately and intimately but there’s no way to make it possible as growing numbers of people set out on their adventures around the world to pursue their own religion or just to retreat from the dreary and weary routine often to find that roaming the world is what they wish their routine was. Whatever the Sistine Chapel would turn out to be, I was ready to embrace it. Along with the crowd, we were ushered into a room. There was a room you could rest in and get yourself ready to face the glorious masterpiece that took the Renaissance to a whole new level. And now here it was – up on the ceiling. I admit I wasn’t blown away unlike people who saw the masterpiece after it was finished following four years of intensive labour. It looked too small from where we were standing and I wished there had been stairs for me to climb up to get a closer look. The crowd was buzzing and I was able to make out the central section of the Chapel- the creation of Adam with God and Adam reaching hands. A really enlightening moment of transferring knowledge and that is what we all aspire to do as teachers. It’s like a piece of art generating that sultry warmth in you as you are standing in front of it… The problem was that the Chapel looked too small and the crowd too large. You aren’t allowed to speak while in here and the guards will shush you if you do. I wish I could afford a private tour but it comes with an incredible price tag! At least I’ve got to see it even though I only saw what the light of knowledge coming through is but I didn’t actually experience it…
We made our way to the exit straight towards St.Peter’s Basilica. The Vatican wasn’t as hard to navigate as my guidebook suggested. We had to make sure we had enough time to climb up the Dome before it was closed. We got our tickets to take an elevator and walk the remaining 323 steps to get breathtaking and enchanting views of Rome. When we got out of the elevator, we saw warning notes saying that people with heart problems should avoiding climbing all the steps. When you see signs like this, it makes you question your own medical condition. We got a sneaky peek at the Basilica and its lavish decorations from up there. How terrifyingly beautiful! Here we were in one of the most celebrated churches in the world!
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How terrifyingly beautiful! Here we were in one of the most celebrated churches in the world! It was a sweaty walk and I found myself almost out of breath at some point, after that it got claustrophobic as we were almost at the top. The postcard view of Rome we got when we finally elbowed our way to the railing made it all so worthwhile! I phoned Mum to tell her how high we got! We aimed big! It wasn’t a picture – it was real! We were on top of the world, the highest you can get in Rome!
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Buongiorno, Roma! Hello, world down there! St.Peter’s Square right underneath dominated the view! On the left I could still see the Vatican and the Palace of the Governorate with a flag.The top of the Dome was crowded and we took a short walk around the surrounding area full of souvenir shops. We walked all the way down with a group of Americans dragging behind. We were back at St. Peter’s. It was huge! There weren’t too many people inside. Some of them were praying but most seem to be tourists like us. There wasn’t anything grimmy and depressing about this massive church. The canopy by Bernini was outstanding. One of the central artworks for me was Pieta by Michaelangelo. You don’t have to be a believer for the sadness of it to resonate with you. The church is designed to feel as an intimate and peaceful place but to me it didn’t feel like that. It was just huge and beautiful…
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Still pensive and reflective (and a bit tired), we left the church to find ourselves in St.Peter’s Square bustling with people. We got a glimpse of the famous Swiss guards in colourful outfits. We found a good spot in the shade near the Egyptian obelisk and let the square embrace us in its concret arms and this is what underpins its architectural design. We had been embraced for about an hour letting the impressions of the day sink in… It was one of the most famous and recognizable squares in the world and here we were just busking here. Just thinking about the events that had happened right here where we were sitting was incredible! How many people had come in hope of meeting the Pope who wasn’t there in this time of the year and right over there was his window and the famous pipe which is used to signalthe election of a new Pope. Religion is so complex and it was comforting to realize that through this day I’d spent in the smallest and holiest state I hadn’t felt under pressure to revisit what I believed was me and my own religion, something that was still shaping up and that day would definitely make a long-run contribution. Arrividerci, Vaticano!
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We were now on our way back to the other part of the city where our hotel was located. A short walk from the square was the famous Castle Sant’Angelo or the Mausoleum of Hadrian. It was an imposing building rusty with ancient memories. We walked to the back of it where there was a playground to rest our feet again. There were children playing right behind this place dating back to the 130s AD! The present is what we are all here for and it’s about enjoying the moment! Then we went along the famous bridge lined with statues of angels and admired the iconic views of the Dome surrounded by the queit Tiber. It’s a very popular place for romantic photoshoots in Rome.
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Our last mission for that hectic day was visiting Campo de’ Fiori (Field of Flowers) with a monument marking the place where Giordano Bruno was executed in 1600. What a beautiful piazza to savour as the sun is going down. There are flowers at the monument to the famous freethinker. Everyone standing up for what they believe in is worthy of genuine respect and admiration.
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We decided we would stay here a while and were looking for a place to have dinner. The staff of cafes and restaurants would go out of their way to get their customer and to some it seems to come as second nature. We came across such a guy. He was absolutely charming and courteous and invited us to take a seat overlooking the square. It just amazes me how Italian men seem to know the right things to say to make our hearts melt. A lot of them have the whole package – the looks and manners. Even if they do it for their own benefit (which was certainly the case), they leave you feeling pleased and charmed. I think this guy really belonged in this job and could make a good living if he came to Russia. The places nearby were half-empty and the place we were at was getting packed because of this guy working his charms on the crowd. He did have a way with customers! When we got seated, the orchestra started playing a famous nostalgic song about evenings in the outskirts of Moscow. They were playing it for us obviously as we had mentioned where we were from! What is it about Rome and music that makes my heart swoon…? Our meal was bellissima of course and we raised a glass to Giordano Bruno standing here covered in his coat against the pensive Roman sky. The second toast was to Italy and its people (especially males)! The guy at the entrance got the whole place packed and was now flirting with a waitress from a nearby café. That’s multitasking for you! Can a healthy Italian male go through a day without flirting? It is what gives the daily drudgery a taste of la dolce vita even when la vita is tough on you! What a marvellous place! And there is an Italian flag over there – bellissima! What was it about Roman evenings that made me wish they had lasted forever…? I’ve got to try and cook those amazing gnocchi with a beautiful cheese sauce back home! I’m a big lover of cheese and combined with the charm of Italian men and the serenity of Roman evenings, it boosts my sense of wellbeing and make me fall head over heels with la vita! Grazie mille!
On our way to our hotel we popped at Largo di Torre Argentino that was just around the corner to watch the Roman cats. What were they up to as the night was approaching? Did they feel lonely? Anyway, we were pleased to keep them company for a while if they needed any. I loved being here at this time when there were hardly any people. I love being out at night as it makes me feel I’m more in control of where I am – I’m there because I feel like it and even though it’s late! Enjoying the moment rather than going to bed and missing out on all the felicita has this sweet rebellious edge to me I believe… More late-night views of my favourite snow white monument, another dolce gelato and here we are in bed with our reflections and fantasies (of varying degrees of holiness) staying true to our religion! Amen! Bonne Nota!

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!