On April 26, Melissa’s mom, Pam, came to join us for her much anticipated Italian vacation—a week each in Rome and Venice. We were so happy to see her (especially since she brought us some more clothes from home)! She loved Italy as much as we thought she would. The three of us packed a lot of sightseeing action into two weeks, and by the time Pam got on the flight home, we were ready to slow down the pace a bit again. But first, Rome.
Rome is an amazing city. History is everywhere you turn. It seems as though each time you go around a corner, you see something that stops you in your tracks—an ornate Baroque church, an ancient column, a picturesque side street, a riotously carved fountain, a glimpse of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, even (in the case of the Pantheon) an entire Roman temple standing in an otherwise ordinary plaza.
The history that surrounds you in Rome isn’t in discreet pieces; it’s all jumbled together. Take, for instance, Largo di Torre Argentina, a downtown square not far from the apartment we rented. In the center of the square, 15 feet below the current street level, stand the remains of four small Roman temples. One of them was where Julius Caesar was assassinated. The ruins are fenced off and today are home to a sanctuary for feral cats.
Up on the street, traffic and pedestrians swirl around the square, an important beginning and ending point for many bus routes. Overlooking the square is a theater where “The Barber of Seville” was premiered in 1816. The opera wasn’t a success: Rossini, the composer, was so roundly booed that he fled to a pastry shop next door.
All of that happened in one small area, whose name is marked in the smallest type size on the tourist map. There are just as many stories for nearly every block of Rome’s centro storico (historic center).
A church near the Colosseum, called San Clemente, shows the layers of history piled on top of each other in Rome. The current church building dates from the 12th century (with some Baroque renovations) and features Byzantine-style mosaics and floors of inlaid colored marble in swirling geometric patterns. It wasn’t the first church on that site, however. The basement contains fragments of religious frescoes from the 9th and 11th centuries and the remains of a 4th-century church, which in turn had pieces of ancient Roman columns, plaques, and sculptures stuck into its walls.
Stairs in the basement take you down to another level, where archaeologists have unearthed pieces of two Roman buildings from 100 AD: the Imperial Mint and a private house that had been converted into a temple and school for the eastern cult of Mithras. It seems that on any given spot in Rome, people have been worshiping something for millennia.
One of the hardest aspects of visiting Rome is getting away from the throngs of tourists. For some attractions—such as St. Peter’s, the Sistine Chapel, the Colosseum, or the Forum—there’s not much you can do but put up with the crowds. Somehow, all of those things are still breathtaking enough to transcend the hordes of visitors. Other sites have their own crowd control. The magnificent Galleria Borghese museum—which will convince you that 17th-century artist Bernini was one of the greatest sculptors of all time—allows only 300 people in at a time, for two-hour stints.
Our way of not feeling like tourists was to rent an apartment in the center of the city (near Piazza Navona) and to patronize local shops. A few blocks from our apartment was Piazza Campo de’ Fiori, which hosts a large produce and flower market every day. We spent a great morning looking at all of the stalls and buying ultra-fresh veal scallopini, buffalo mozzarella, prosciutto, sage, and lemons, which Melissa turned into a truly transcendent saltimbocca. She thinks she may have to give up cooking that dish; it might never be so good again.
On the advice of some travelers we met in Naples, we saved our visit to the Vatican for our last day in Rome (May 2). The idea was that the overwhelming amount of great art in St. Peter’s, the Vatican Museums, and the Sistine Chapel would ruin us for every other church or museum in town. A good theory, perhaps, but we hadn’t realized how many Italians would use the May 1 Labor Day holiday on Thursday as an excuse for a four-day weekend. When we showed up outside St. Peter’s in the morning, we encountered one of the biggest crowds that our tour guides had ever seen.
Our group shuffled forward in the hot sun for an hour and a half to get into the basilica. After lunch, we spent nearly two hours in line waiting to get into the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel, only to have the doors close for the day before we reached them. Our guides promised us a make-up tour for first thing the next morning, but we were schedule to leave on a 10:50 train. Luckily, we were able to push our train tickets back two hours, so after a hectic night of packing and very little sleep, we showed up at the Vatican Museums at 7:30 a.m., waited for another hour, and then finally got in!
The amazing thing was that it really was worth all that trouble. To see (a little taste of) why, check out the pictures in our Vatican City photo gallery.