We woke this morning to the sound of rain pattering off the tin rooves of the neighbouring buildings. I knew I should have packed that umbrella. I at least brought my rain jacket. Breakfast was a croissant, muffin, yogurt and a hot chocolate. Everyone here wants me to drink cappuccino or coffee. For the first time I feel like I am missing out on something good. People are generally shocked, borderline offended even, when we don’t order coffee. My hot chocolate was made with an espresso machine so it was all frothy. Thats practically the same thing, I’m sure.
We headed out into the rain a little after eight with a plan to purchase tickets for the “hop on hop off” bus. Turns out there are 4-5 companies to choose from. Seriously! Now I need to compare prices and routes and timing and… forget it, we picked the closest one. Along with the bus tickets we purchased “skip-the-line” tickets to the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel for tomorrow. I am looking forward to tomorrow.
We boarded the two decker bus and climbed to the open air second floor. I generally enjoy these bus tours. I’ve had some memorable tour guides. A fellow in Chicago was especially entertaining but unfortunately this tour came with an automated voice that echoed through cheap earbuds. Between explanations of stellae and bascilica it ran poor renditions of Vivaldi. I suppose when you accomodate a dozen or so languages a recording is a necessity though I’m certain the Vivaldi is not.
We chose to ride the bus through its complete circuit once and then decide what to do from there. Watching the bus manouver through the busy streets, down cramped lanes and through the masses of unpredictable pedestrians was nearly as entertaining as the history. Actually, much more entertaining. Whoever wrote the script for the tour must have been trained by the same people that produce elevator music and 1970s sex education videos – let’s suck the fun out of everything! The traffic was awesome though and I was anxiously awaiting Jackie Chan or some other ninja chasing a bad guy to come tearing through the bus at any moment. Dad suggested we sit in the very front of the bus for the thrill factor and joked that if mom was here she’d kill the bus driver.
I wanted to get off at every stop: “oh look Piazza Venezia!” “Whoa the Circo Massimo, remeber that scene from Ben Hur!” “St. Peter’s Bascillica, sweet!” “Hey, look at that sweet bike path along the Tiber… with absolutely no one on it.” How on earth do Romans out preform Americans in cardiac health when every second person has a cigarrette hanging out of their mouth and the only bike lane in the entire city is exceptionally empty? In the end we opted to hop off at the Coliseum.
Now this is an impressive set of ruins. There is poetry in its construction. The Romans used the loot they stole from the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple to build this monument of death and suffering. Some estimates put the number of lives lost in the Coliseum over a million. They could flood the ampitheater and stage mock sea battles where thousands could die for the enjoyment of others. It is a temple dedicated to all that is wrong with humanity. Naturally, we are preserving it with utmost care. It is impressive, no doubt. I can hardly imagine the colossal undertaking it must have been to construct. We circumnavigated its circumfrence but chose to avoid the crowds and long lines to get inside. We scaled the Palatine instead and to hear dad it might as well have been the Himilayas. Actually, he didn’t complain at all but he was breathing like a draft horse. We took our time and enjoyed our surroundings.
A small cafe overlooking the Coliseum entertained us for lunch. They had some amazing pizza. The Italians know how to eat. After lunch and a little more sightseeing we climbed back on the bus. It began to rain. We were stuck on top of the bus. It was a miserable wet ride back through the majority of the route.
We disembarked at the Piazza Barberinni. There is a fabulous water fountain here by the artist Bernini. I need to look up the story behind it. Imagine a triton suspended by the fins of four dolphins. He kneels on scaly legs a conche shell pressed to his mouth, head drawn back to sound the instrument before him. The Triton’s body in similitude of the perfect man is shining with the life giving water pouring from the shell in his hands. I wish I could better describe it to you but words are failing me. I think I can now say that I have a favorite piece of art and understand just a little the passion some exhibit for great art. I’ll include a picture here but like all amazing things pictures are inadequate.
Dad was beginning to fade quickly by this point so we headed back in the direction of the hotel. Along the way was the Basilica S. Maria Degli Angeli E Dei Martiri. It is a squat romanesque like structure with crumbling brick walls and the appearnce of antiquity. It looked open so I headed inside to escape the rain and was not prepared for what I would find. This was the Rome I was looking for. The domed ceiling was much loftier than I’d expected and the walls home to impressive depictions of early Christianity. John the Baptist’s marble head lay on a platter in a corner. God was being swept away on a cloud while Adam and Eve fled from the garden. A sign before a ropped off sanctuary invited those who wished to pray to enter and do so. It was dark inside the building and the little light that filtered through the stained glass was subdued. I could not restrain from taking a few pictures, as rude as that probably was. I kept the flash off at least.
We were back in the hotel by 3pm. Dad was spent. I took a moment to relax and then headed out on my own while he took a needed break. We are remarkably close to one of the main public libraries in Rome. I was keen to see it. Surely the Romans will have magnificent libraries? The exterior of the Biblioteca Nazionale is far from inspiring. It reminds me of ugly utilitarian soviet architecture. The inside, to my dismay, is a reflection of the outside. The librarians at the desk confiscated my driver’s license as payment for entry. A large open and commodious library full of arbrite desks, old CRT computer monitors, microfiche readers and row upon row of ancient card catalogs. In a city that has been the inspiration of the western world for centuries lies a library that is the antithesis of ispiration, institution. There were plenty of people studiously occupying the desks, bent over their laptops with piles of books scattered about them defying the sterility of their environment to rob them of their souls. I don’t want to talk about it any more; its too painful.
I wandered the streets of Rome after that to absorb all I could and let the rain rinse off what I’d just experienced. I found myself at the national museum. It was growing late so not worth the 13 euros to explore its interior but the courtyard alone was worth the visit. There are several dozen headless statues that I really wanted to stand behind and take a picture of my head on their marble bodies. Alas, I was alone. Another gorgeous fountain, this one complete with fish in its green ringed pool. Beautiful.
We ate dinner at a table on the bustling streets after a stroll through Rome’s famous shopping district. The food was okay but not up to the standard we have already come to expect. When eating a meal on the corniche in Muscat with the family I told the kids to take a deep breath and let the place sink in. “You are making a memory” I said. I hope that memory lasts for them and this one for me.