Tales of a wandering lesbian

Roman holiday

The best way to see Rome is from the back of a scooter.  I say the back, because you aren’t fully aware of the impending doom that is around every hairpin turn, swerve, screeching stop and turbo acceleration.  So long as you can get used to these and let go of the need to control anything, I think it’s the best way, for sure.

“Rome traffic is fluid, so don’t be afraid or anything.”  He’d picked me up at my hotel and buckled a helmet on my grinning head.  “You’re going to have the ride of your life.”  Now we were zipping down the street in front of the floodlit Colosseum.

“Oh, I’m not afraid,” I half-shouted, bumping helmets as I tried to get close enough for him to hear.  “I’m just holding on.”  It was true.  I was grinning ear-to-ear, but wasn’t about to let my grip slip off the little handles on either side of my thighs.

Fabio is another amazing Italy contact:  a friend of a friend, who after a couple of emails back and forth was taking me out to show me his city – from the back of his scooter.


“Tell me what you did today so I know what you’ve already seen.”

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!  I looked at him, unable to begin a sentence.  I’d seen quite a lot.  It had been a couple of the longest days of sightseeing I’d ever had.  I started down the list, but we got sidetracked, or he stopped listening or something happened, because we had cruised past the forum, palatine hill, and nameless other piazzas, and were now passing the Coliseum.  Fabio was narrating from the front seat.  This was simultaneously entertaining and nerve-racking.

“Oh yes, I saw this today, it’s beautiful.”  “You went inside, too?”  He was surprised.   “Yup.  It was great.”

“I’m trying to figure out how you did everything today.”  So was I.  “Well, I did coliseum, forum, palatine hill and the pantheon this morning and then the Vatican this afternoon.”  “But you didn’t do the Vatican museum today.”  It was more of a statement than a question.  “Oh no, I did.”  I’m not sure he believed me.  I’d also done the Sistine chapel, St. Peter’s and Trevi again.

“Well, have you seen the pyramid crypt?”  I’d only seen it in guidebooks.  So we headed there.  It’s a pyramid shaped crypt that makes up part of the wall of the non-catholic cemetery.  “It’s really a pyramid” I was informed.  Well, it certainly looked like a pyramid.

We next drove past the Circuis  Maximus, an old chariot racing track.  Then we drove up a hill to “the keyhole.”  I’d never heard of it, but Fabio assured me that it was a very famous place.  We pulled into what appeared to be a military-guarded parking lot.  Fabio took me over to a building on the edge of the lot closest to the military guys, and pointed to a large, round keyhole.  “Have a look.”

Keyhole view

“This is the smallest sovereign nation on earth. You’ve heard of the order of Malta?  This is their place.”  I looked up and saw the Malta cross in concrete above the door.  Fabio told me this single building is the headquarters, and is its own sovereign entity.  That’s why it was guarded by guys in camo, who were watching us closely.  Fabio seemed terribly unconcerned.  This was his city.

“That’s the most famous view in Rome.”  I motioned for him to take a look.  He just smiled wryly.  “That’s alright.  I know it.”

He took me past several churches.  “That one is the oldest Christian church in Rome.”  “Those are all from 500.”  “That one is from 900.”  “Bellisima!” he declared as we rode past each.  The suffix ‘issima’ means ‘the most.’  Apparently every church in Rome is the most beautiful.  Or the most old.  Or something that the rest of the world has copied.  The Greek part of me wanted to say something about the fact that the Roman temples that many churches now inhabited were, in fact, modeled on the Greek temples of the ancient world.  I kept my mouth shut, though.  I was on the back of a scooter, getting a private tour of Rome, and I was happy to be there.

We’d decided to cross the river to a part of town I hadn’t seen yet.  Trastevere was a medieval part of town where people still live and work.   A bustling neighborhood that boasts its part of the medieval wall that used to be closed at night to keep out thieves.  We pulled up to a large, high building .  It had no paint and a very plain façade, except for the torches set in brackets, sending up large, flickering flames.

Fabio knew I was vegetarian and went out of his way to find a place that would accommodate me.  “I would have taken you to another place, but they would probably be unfriendly to a vegetarian.”  I pictured myself being slapped by a steak.  “Roman food is very…earthy,” he said, bringing his hand down through the air in front of him.  I reassured him that I can almost always find a pasta or pizza to make due with.  And this place we had come was a pizzeria.  More pizza!

We walked up a flight of steep, narrow stairs to a heavy door on the second floor, and pushed.  The inside of the restaurant was dark and had bare, rocky walls decorated with old, wooden farming equipment.

Tonight, Fabio ordered for us, explaining that I was vegetarian and that I didn’t drink.  It was nice not to have to struggle through the conversation with the waiter.

We started with bruschetta.  “You know what it is?”  Oh yes.  Terribly yummy toasted bread with stuff on it.  The only thing I had always wondered about was how to say the word.  Ours were lovely large, thick pieces of bread toasted perfectly so the inside was still chewy.  We had three.  One was a kind of garlic oil, one a chunky, marinated tomato, and one diced, seasoned mushrooms.


Fabio kept telling me to eat.  We were two lawyers, and I had someone across from me who wanted to talk politics.  Global politics, American politics, Italian politics, everything.  And in English.  We were talking about the past three US presidential elections, the state of Italian politics, the political situation at the time of the first two World Wars, pending US judicial decisions, military theory, and more.  The conversation and the bruschetta was excellent.

And then my pizza came.

Roman pizza

As you can see the pizza in Rome is a little different than the pizza I’d been eating elsewhere.  It was thicker.  And the toppings were thicker.  Instead of the really thin slices of eggplant and peppers I’d had on almost all of my other pizzas, this one had thick, juicy slabs of eggplant, and mounds of peppers.

I don’t know if this was truly indicative of Roman pizza, but it was good.

The conversation continued on, winding through our careers.  We eventually found ourselves talking about happiness.  What was it?  Could you be happy bringing happiness to others?  Was happiness a collective or a personal experience?  Was it worthwhile pursuing.  Fabio is a smart guy.  We sparred regarding the functionality of lying, military force, and fear.  “I wish I was as sure as you are,” he said in response to some binary comment I’d made.  “Oh honey, I’m not sure about anything really.  I’m just trying to be happy.”  In the end we came to no conclusions and agreed that it was a good result.

We walked back out into the night, through a group of people smoking on the narrow stairs.  Italy passed laws banning smoking in places like restaurants, but they don’t seem to have mirrored the US laws that require smoking to take place away from the buildings.  “That’s horrible.  I would never do that,” said Fabio as we pushed our way through the crowd, and he took out a pack of cigarettes.

I asked him how he was a marathon runner who smoked and he assured me that it was just a myth that you coughed if you smoke.  I gave him a fair amount of crap, and he told me a story about hitting the wall at mile 20 in one of his races, and asking a guy on the side of the road for a cigarette.  The picture of him running with the cigarette made the local paper.

We headed to the river for a quick look at the view.  He seemed totally unconcerned as we wedged ourselves through tall young men drinking bottles of beer.  I paused to take a picture of the gorgeous river.

Tiber at night

It was nice to have a guide.  I would never have come across the river at night by myself.  Not because of Rome, but because of me.

Fabio wanted to show me more of the neighborhood, so we walked the streets of Trastevere.  He pointed out more old buildings and beautiful churches, and insisted on taking a picture of me with one.

Old church, young woman

While he took the picture, a wild-looking dude walked up and opened his mouth right in front of the camera that was balanced on a bush.  Fabio stood up, looked at the guy, and said something to the effect of “now that’s not even funny.”  He was still dressed in his suit from work and looked like he was going to slap the dude, who just shrugged, laughed and walked off.  Fabio’s expression was far from amused.  I was chuckling a little at the interaction.

We walked a bit more, Fabio pointing out his old haunts, especially noting the place where he used to get late night pastry – now closed up.  This was truly a man after my own heart.  Politics and pastry in the same night.

We found the scooter and crossed the river again in search of an excellent cappuccino.  After several u-turns and dead ends (evidently they change the streets around in Rome on a regular basis), we were in a familiar piazza.  I asked him if he’d had the pizza at the little shop.  “You’ve eaten there?”  He was starting to sound like he didn’t believe everything I had done.  I had coffee in the piazza already, but at the place across the street from where we were headed.  It seemed I was one shop away from the purported best coffee in Rome.

We ordered a couple of coffees, and waited at the bar while Fabio explained that many Italians order a glass of water with their coffee in order to cleanse their palate.  I’d noticed the water but didn’t realize its purpose.  The coffee arrived and Fabio insisted on another picture.

Roman coffee

“Well, at least you have proove that you were here.”

I can’t really say if the coffee was good.  Fabio seemed mildly pleased, but they had sugared the coffee for us, something I never do, so it was a very different experience.  It was like drinking a cup of flavored sugar, or something from Starbucks.  I finished it off, though, crunching the grains at the bottom of the cup.  I hadn’t had dessert, so the coffee would suffice.

We were in the neighborhood of the original location of Fabio’s university, as well as his high school.  His high school had been housed in the building where Galileo was held while he was on trial.  You could see the observatory where he was working at the time.  Pretty amazing.  Fabio took me around the corner from the coffee shop to show me a little fountain – one of many in Rome.  This one was frequented by students at the university before their exams.  Drinking from the fountain was supposed to bring good luck on the tests.

Book fountain

As I raised my camera to take a picture, Fabio reached out and pulled a bit of garbage from behind one of the concrete spheres, with a disgusted look on his face.  He took the garbage with us and found a garbage can.  This was his city, and he was clearly very proud of it.

It was now almost midnight and we both had early days in the morning.  So we climbed back on the scooter and headed back to my hotel.  I gave him a big American hug and offered to take him around Portland if we found ourselves there at the same time.  He agreed and hopped back on the scooter.  I’m not so sure we’ve got the oldest or most beautiful of anything in Portland, but maybe I could find a friend with a scooter.  Portland might look pretty cool from the back of a scooter.

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December 16, 2009   3 Comments

Rome, day 2, part 2

Rome was fascinating.  I mean, really interesting.  One minute I’d be looking at ancient ruins and the next I’d be in the middle of a political demonstration.  Nuns and well-dressed priests bustled through the streets next to military personnel with machine guns.

As I walked from the Forum to the Pantheon, I enjoyed the opulence, the contradictions and the cacophony of the city.  In one square I found an armored mini-van (bigger vehicles aren’t really practical in the sometimes small streets.

Armored minivan

And next to the van a shop selling vestments and day-wear for the cosmopolitan priest.

Vestments Priest wear

The pantheon was my sightseeing destination, but first I would revisit the pizza place from the night before.  The same girl was working.  She recognized me and helped me pick out some meat-frea pizzas to try.  Today, it was funghi, and something with gouda cheese.

Pizza funghi Pizza gouda

Yes, yes, the mushrooms look slimy.  It’s possible my sister has now vomited from seeing the little funghi.  (Sorry, Cath.)  They were slimy, and the whole thing had a slightly acidic taste, but it was very interesting, and I was quite hungry, so I had no complaints.  The gouda pizza was yummy.  It had thin slices of zucchini under the cheese, and a nice, smoky flavor.  Plus, the crust itself is some of the best I’ve ever had.

I think maybe I overdid with the amount of pizza I ordered, or maybe it was the speed with which I was eating.  I kept catching the other diners staring at me as we ate together in the outdoor seating area.  I was hungry, and I had a schedule to keep.

Fortunately, the Pantheon was only about a block away.  The front columns of the Pantheon are each 40 feet tall and made of one piece.  They support an immense portico that leads to the interior of the church.

Pantheon portico

The interior is vast and sparsely decorated.  Tombs (including Raphael’s) ring the beautiful marble floor.  But the real show is above.  The oculus.  A hole in the roof that allowed the construction of the first-of-its kind dome, the oculus provides a pretty spectacular light show, casting shafts of sunlight onto the floor, or ceiling, depending on the time of day.

Oculus Dark oculus Oculus overhead

I have a picture form the University of Virginia that is strikingly similar.  Thomas Jefferson did a nice job with his translation.

Next on my list was a sight that could be explored over the course of years.  I was hoping to do it in an afternoon:  Vatican City.  I’d missed the Pope’s general audience, which was earlier in the day, but I thought I could make up for it by seeing the Vatican museums and St. Peter’s.  And so I started walking.

The Vatican is on the other side of the river from the Pantheon.  I’d made the decision early in the trip to walk to all of my destinations if possible.  I really enjoy seeing a city at street level.  There’s something about the sounds and smells that helps me get a feel for the place.  Anyway, it was a beautiful day for a walk.

View crossing Tiber

I lingered on the bridge and took time to fill my bottle at one of Rome’s friendly drinking fountains.

Dragon fountain

I caught a glimpse of St. Peter’s and headed around the walls of the city to the Vatican museums.  The 4 miles of museums closed first.  I’d be back for the big church.

St. Pete's Swiss guard Vatican walls

This was a museum like I’ve never seen before.  Because of the strange position of Vatican City, the museum is an entry point into the country.  That meant metal detectors, bag screenings and the like.  Then we all crammed ourselves onto escalators that took us up to the museums, bookstores and caffe.

The museums had quite a lot to offer, including phenomenal vistas,

St. Pete's from Vatican Museum Vatican globe Vatican view

fabulous riches (I’m pretty sure they have the actual golden fleece there somewhere),

Jason and fleece

and a nice share of irony.  I found it especially amusing to read the official Vatican descriptions of the Egyptian gods in the collection.

Heel licker Fresco Egyptian dog goddess

I spent my time in the Egyptian and Etruscan rooms, then wandered through halls of tapestries and super-old maps.  Along with 8 gazillion noisy tourists, I arrived in the Raphael rooms, decorated by the master and his students.  Here’s that painting of that arch from the Forum:

Raphael's arch

Okay, maybe it’s not the same arch, but it looks like maybe it could be.  I’m not so much a scholar in this area.  Regardless, both arches were quite beautiful.

After miles of walking, we came to the part most of the people were looking for – the Sistine Chapel.  There were handy little signs throughout the museums, directing us there.  The entire time.  From the first corridor of the museums.  It was pretty comical, actually to see people choosing their route based on the signs, because they were placed at every turn, and pointed in almost every direction.  There was no quick, direct route.  That left foreign tour groups and field-trips jostling to get to a destination that was about an hour’s walk away.

At this point, even I was duped.  I had found a private tour guide who was speaking to a couple of American ladies, in ‘Merican, so I stuck close and got a little extra info.  There were still a bunch of rooms of newer art.  You know, like Van Gogh.  Amazing stuff.

I was surprised that the Vatican allowed pictures in its museums.  I guess it would be difficult to control, given the volume of visitors, but I was still surprised.  The only place pictures were forbidden was in the beautiful, high-ceilinged Sistine Chapel itself.  The room was darker than I’d expected.  Know that probably sounds pretty ridiculous, but the ceilings were really high.  This is another time I didn’t bring the right gear.  My binoculars stayed at home while I craned my neck to see the famous room.  It was pretty cool.  The frescoes were gorgeous, but I was even more interested to find the hole in the ceiling where they put the stovepipe during the process of selecting a new Pope.

After checking out the frescoes, and watching a few friars doing the same, I followed the tourguide through the shortcut to St. Peter’s.  The basilica is essentially on the other side of the country, so the shortcut was a welcome escape from the long trek back around the city walls.

St. Peter’s, for all its opulence, is a really nice church, I think.  It had a nice feel.  A huge feel, but a nice one.  Its size is pretty much huge.  No, really huge.  I found out later that one of the big churches I’d been walking past, near my hotel, is the exact shape and size of one of the supporting columns inside St. Peter’s.

Being big means that it can hold a lot of things.  St. Peter’s has beautiful marble floors, a huge dome, an immense bronze canopy,

St. Pete's Marble Dome inside Bronae canopy

fancy tombs, St. Peter’s throne, and a really old statue of the man himself that’s older than the church.

FAncy tomb St. Pete St. Pete's throne St. Pete

I waited in line with the other people who were touching his toes, which sit at eye level.  They’ve been touched so many times that they’re shiny and look like they’re melting.  When my turn came I walked up, kissed his foot and immediately sanitized with my bath & body works cherry blossom hand sanitizer.  Why not, really?

At that point, I’d been on my feet for about 8 hours, and was beginning to drag a little.  I found a spot at the base of one of the supporting columns and squatted with the husbands who had been deposited there.  Consulting my guidebook, I discovered that the crypt gave free tours.  Excellent.  That was something I wanted to see.  I thought maybe I’d come back for mass if I was inspired after the crypt.

The sky was turning pink over the square.  I walked past the colorful Swiss Guard, and found Lady Justice (without blindfold) standing overhead.  Well, at least she wasn’t in the crypt…

St. Pete dusk Swiss Guard night Lady Justice

The crypt was interesting – sterile, but interesting.  There was lots of white marble, and reclining statues of dead popes.  A recording played over and over in different languages reminding people that this was a holy place, and inviting them to remain quiet for reflection.  Most interesting to me was St. Peter’s tomb, which is partially visible from the crypt and from the floor of the basilica, as well as the tomb of Pope John Paul II.  I grew up Catholic under the tenure of this man.  His tomb was brightly lit, very plain, and guarded by a sadly smiling guard who stepped over the ropes to touch holy items to the tomb, handed to him by passing visitors.  I looked in my bag, but didn’t quite think a hot pink pencil made the cut, so I passed nothing over to the dead pope for a blessing.

I returned upstairs too late for the start of mass, but I stood outside the ropes that kept the tourists separated from the worshipers and listened to the call and response in Italian.  Then I headed out.

St. Pete's night

The square was sparkling after dark, and the walk back was beautiful.  The night was clear and cold and gave fantastic views as I crossed the river again.

Tiber river view night

It was a long day of sightseeing.  I checked my watch.  I had two hours to walk back to the hotel and get ready for my dinner date.  He’d be arriving at 8 with his motorbike, and I wanted a little rest before the next adventure in Rome.

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December 14, 2009   2 Comments

Rome, day 2, part 1

I took approximately 1000 pictures in the day and a half I spent in Rome.  I’m not a very good photographer, and I tend to use pictures as a note-taking method, but that’s a lot of pictures.  It had something to do with the amount of things I packed into a short amount of time.  I wouldn’t want to see a lot of cities the way I saw Rome, but bustling from location to location seemed to work for me in the eternal city.

I started the morning with breakfast in the hotel.  I got an amazing deal on the room by clicking the “Rick Steves” button on the hotel’s website, which took me to a separate rate listing.  Crazy.  Anyway, the room came with breakfast, which was served in the room basically across the hall from where I was sleeping.  This was nice for a couple of reasons:  1. I was able to have cappuccino in my room, 2. I couldn’t oversleep.  The guests weren’t especially noisy, but the eternally overwhelmed staff person seemed completely unaware that she was, in fact, working in a hotel, which is a service industry, and not serving vagabonds who had taken over her home.  That meant she was not so careful with regards to noise level while setting up for breakfast.

The breakfast was totally adequate and included more of the yogurt and cereal I had come to love in Venice. As well as crusty rolls and individual servings of nutella.  These looked like a perfect snack to me, so they ended up in my bag for later.  I have found that snacks are critical to my happiness while sightseeing.  So I drank my coffee, consulted my guidebook and made a plan for the day.

Cappu and map

And the day was an absolutely glorious one.  The rain had cleared to leave perfectly blue skies.  As I walked to my first destination – to Colosseum – I passed many of the things I’d seen the night before.  I’m telling you, seeing Rome at different times of the day is like seeing different cities.

I passed obelisks and ancient markets, and big columns.

Sunny Obelisk Ancient market Big Columns

And I walked up and down a bunch of hills.  Rome has hills, have you heard?

And then I was at the Colesseum.


It’s big, the Colesseum.  See the little people?  Big.  Being so big, it has really great views of other ruins.

View of Ruins from Colosseum Arch of Constantine from Colosseum Ruins through Colosseum archway

The middle of the structure, where the actual gladiatorial battles were waged was interesting, but kind of scrambled.  They’ve reconstructed part of the floor so you can see where the animals would appear to eat the competitors, so that’s helpful.  Personally, I found the seating areas much more interesting.  Some of the roofing is still intact, but there are portions that look like they’ve melted, leaving really striking images.

Melted rooves

I wandered around, feeling a little lost.  What was this place?  Was it a prison?  Was it an arena?  Was it a holy place?  It pretty much encapsulated the contradictions of Rome itself.  Even Greenpeace was having a demonstration on site.

Colosseum bars Arena Colosseum cross

I felt like time stood still while I was inside the Colosseum.  Well, it stood still for everything except my stomach.  When I left, I was hungry, so I reached into my bag for a little snack as I walked to the Forum.  The roll and nutella were perfect.  I’d need my strength for this next bit.  I was looking forward to the Forum, but wasn’t really sure if I’d be able to appreciate it without understanding a lot of the ruins.  Still, I was willing to give it a shot.  I mean, it’s the birthplace of democracy, or something like that.

Okay, there’s a lot going on at the Forum, so I’m going to hit the highlights for me.  They may or may not be in your guidebook next time you’re in Rome.  The thing I liked best was this little path.

Forum pathway

It was in front of Constantine’s basilica.  It was peaceful.  I sat there and listened to the birds for quite a while, even though I was on a tight schedule and needed to get moving.  I just wanted to stay there for as long as I could.  Everyone else was taking another route around this area, so I sat in relative quiet, soaking up the Forum (which can be a bit overwhelming).

I also liked the basilica.

Constantine's basillica

The ceiling of the arches was really interesting to me.  I didn’t take a good picture of the entire structure, but I took about 20 of the ceilings.  I sat up here for a while on a hunk of old column that didn’t seem to be needed anymore.

I saw the Senate, and the place where they housed all the lawyers – who were recognized as a needed part of any society – and the rostrum.

Senate Lawyers' building Kristin rostrum

I wanted to climb up on the rostrum and give a speech, but I had a lot planned for the afternoon, so I decided I’d rather not go to jail, or spend my day explaining that the rostrum is intended for speech-making – so I just took a pic in front of it.

Oh yes, and the vestal virgins.  I saw their place too.

Temple of the vestal virgins

I saw a lot of other things, too: churches and columns and bricks and marble.  Saw the place where Julius Caesar was cremated.  Saw the arch that Raphael painted in the Vatican.  The one where he has Aristotle walking through the arch with someone else I can’t remember right now.  Yeah, that arch is in the Forum as well.  It’s named after Severus Snape, I believe.

Severus arch

And then I walked up the hill to where Remus and Romulus were raised by the she wolf.  You know, before founding Rome.  It was one of the strangest and most peaceful places I’ve been.  From here I pondered mythology, looked out over the Circus Maximus (which used to be a chariot race-course), and decided I’d better get a move on if I was going to see the Pantheon and the Vatican that afternoon.  It was also time to eat again.  I was hungry from seeing so much before noon.  So I set off, back to the Pantheon and my favorite pizza place.

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December 13, 2009   Comments Off on Rome, day 2, part 1

Rome, day 1 part 2

The mayor’s house sits at the top of Capitol hill.

Mayor's place

In front of it, at the bottom of the hill is the Victor Emmanuel monument.  It’s big, it’s white, it’s intense.

Victor Emmanuel monument

In the back, on the other side of the hill, is the Forum.

“That is the capitol.  It’s the capitol.  The one all other capitols were modeled after,” I was told by a friend.  Standing here, I believed him.  It had fountains and statues and a powerful view.  It even had ancient ruins.  After pondering ancient Rome and the origins of democratic government, I walked form the hill to Campo di Fiori, a beautiful plaza where vendors sold their wares, and a heretic/philosopher was burned at the stake for his dangerous writings regarding the sun as the center of the solar-system, and the existence of other similar systems.


I paid my respects to this martyr of free speech by purchasing a few things, and followed the wandering crowd through the streets, past mimes, to the next piazza, Piazza Navona.  I’d been told to visit here.  I could see why.  Along with housing three major fountains, including the “Four Rivers,” the piazza was alive.

Piazza Navona

I looked around at what was basically a carnival.  A carnival!  I like carnivals.  There was a carousel, carnival games (complete with barkers), and even fair food (I almost bought a giant doughnut the size of my head).

I held off, but was getting hungry.  The pizza from earlier was wearing off, and I knew that hunger-induced-hysteria was not far off.  Heading back past the pantheon, I kept my eyes open for a chestnut roaster.  I’d seen a number of them, and thought this would be a good light dinner.  But first, I happened across the piazza of the pizza place.  I seriously considered popping back in for another slice, but opted to go next door for a coffee and one of the little sweets I’d seen earlier.


Earlier in the day I’d taken refuge in the coffee shop during a sudden downpour, along with a couple of guys.  I blatantly eavesdropped as they discusses the pastries.  From what I could understand, they were debating what they were.  I think they settled on canoletti.  Not sure, but it sounded like canoli to me.  So, I picked one out and dove in.  They were like chewy, thin sugar cookie tubes filled with what I think was nutella.  Even when I try to steer clear of this stuff, it sneaks up on me.  Still, it was just enough of a pick-me-up to allow me to continue on my way.

Back past the Pantheon, which was even more dramatic in the increasing darkness, it was like seeing an entirely new city.  The Trevi fountain was another thing I couldn’t stay away from.  It is spectacular during the day, but even better at night.

Trevi night

And, there was a chestnut roaster in the square in front of the fountain.  It was a perfect dinner.  I paid for my seven chestnuts, and the vendor picked them off of the hot tray with his blackened fingers, placing them into a paper cone.

Chestnut roaster

I sat with the lovers and the drunkards and pondered the beautiful fountain.  After a while, when I could feel the protein of the nuts replenishing my energy, I checked my map and headed to the Spanish Steps.  The walk was full of more beautiful, winding streets and happy people filling them.  As I approached the steps, I saw a group of people huddled together around one of Rome’s many obelisks.

There were nuns in the group, leading the crowd in song, and there were more police present than seemed usual.  Looking up at the obelisk, I realized that a statue of Mary was on the top.

Crowd at obelisk Mary obelisk SPQR flowers

Well, it was the feast of the Immaculate Conception, so it didn’t seem so strange that people were gathered here. However, I found out the next day that the Pope had been there earlier to bless the statue and place the massive flower arrangement.  Big excitement.

Next, I checked out the nearby “sinking boat” fountain and then headed up the steps.

Sinking boat

While the view from the bottom wasn’t so interesting to me, the view from the top was pretty excellent.

Spanish Steps view

Like in Venice, I was grateful for the rain that had come earlier in the day.  It made the streets of the city sparkle, adding a magical glow to an already magical city.

I looked out over Rome and smiled.  I had almost decided not to make the trip.  I would have only two days to pack up and head back to the US when I returned.  But even after 8 hours in Rome I knew I’d made the right choice.  And I was pretty darn sure I’d be back.  Rome is a place I could see myself living.  It has its own pulse, and its own heart.  It even has its own insecurities and crazy uncles popping by to bless phallic symbols.

I uttered a few “bella”s and directed myself back to the hotel, past old theaters, and fine fountains and ancient ruins.  For all I’d seen today, I knew there was infinitely more I would try to see tomorrow.

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December 12, 2009   1 Comment

Rome, day 1, part 1

Trains can come early in Italy.  They can also leave early.  After waking up at 5:30 to catch the early train to Rome, I found this out.  Fortunately, this morning was the rainiest day I’ve seen in Italy – except for maybe the night when Venice flooded, so when I watched my train cruising out of the station, it was in the middle of a downpour.  I had been plenty early to the station, but the ticket machine wasn’t accepting bills, so I had to trek out to the main street to buy a cappuccino and get some change.  Not a lot was open, as it was still dark outside, and the feast of the immaculate conception (a national holiday) to boot.

There was something about seeing my train rolling slowly away from the station as I walked up the long, tree-lined street, in the dark and rain that made me want to scream.  And to laugh.  I chose laugh, which was good, but it was a kind of manic, “I can’t believe this.  Cazzo!” laugh.  Because of the holiday, the next train was in 3 hours.  So, I headed back to the house to write and have a little breakfast.  I would have gone back to bed, but the cappuccino prevented that.

Three hours later, I was winding my way to Firenze where I would pick up the high-speed train to Rome.  All went well, and I was in Rome by 2:00.  The high-speed ride made up an hour of the time I’d lost and I was treated to some great light-shows as the clouds began to clear.

Light show from train

Rome is fabulous.  I walked swiftly from the Termini train station to my hotel, Hotel Aberdeen where I’d gotten a screaming deal on a room in a secure building across from the Ministry of Defense.  It even had a little balcony.

Rome Hotel View

I threw my things in the room, and ran back out into the city, eager to see as much as possible.  My stay would be brief – 2 nights, and only one full day in the city – so I wanted to make the best of it.  I’d spent my time on the train examining maps of Rome and planning my time in the city.  My buddy Rick Steves had a couple of suggested walking tours that sounded interesting, one in the evening and one at night.  If I played it right, I’d be able to do both.  But first, I wanted to see the Trevi fountain.

The walk from the hotel was fascinating.  While I found Venice magical in its subtle, enchanting way, I found Rome to be magical in its might.  Every intersection had the potential to be special.  Art and antiquity blared out of unlikely spaces to grab-hold and make sure I knew that I was in an important place.  Rome is the capital of Italy.  It felt a little like the capital of the world – but it seemed a little desperate to express that primacy.  Or maybe more anxious than desperate.  Like a clumsy teenager tripping over himself with excitement to show you his new toys.   Carabinieri with sub-machine guns and military with full-out machine guns stood in doorways and piazzas, seeming to guard the stones of the city itself.

And things are big here.  Like Texas big.  Bigger.  They’re really big.  And old.  Walls stretch up, church facades are exaggerated in their baroque opulence, and buildings go on forever.  I found out on my last night that I’d been walking past the longest corridor in the world on my way to see the sights.

Tall Rome walls

In a piazza just above Trevi (did you know there are hills in Rome?  Seven, evidently), which I think might be the President’s residence, I watched as a bus load of sailors and then soldiers exited with their rifles, and headed for the building.

Sailors Soldiers

I wasn’t sure exactly where I was, but there was a steady flow of tourists down the hill and around the building.  I joined them and found myself suddenly at Trevi, the fountain of “Ocean” and the sea of his tourist admirers.


The fountain is spectacular.  The evening light was wonderful, filtering through the clouds.  I was beginning to feel a little desperate from the hunger that comes with traveling all day without food, but I took some time to enjoy this place.  I walked around the fountain, sat and looked at it, and tossed a few coins over my shoulder, hoping for a return-trip to Rome.

Trevi horse Trevi Ocean Trevi Neptune

When I couldn’t stand the hunger anymore, I checked my map and headed to the pantheon, where I would look for a recommended pizza place and see the big church.

Pantheon dusk

It was big.  Look at the little, tiny people at the base of the columns.  Pizza was more important than the impressive building, so going inside would have to wait until the morning.

After a re-fuel I decided to head to piazza del popolo to take some pictures for a friend and start my evening stroll through Rome.  But first there would need to be gelato.  One of Rome’s enormous gelato shops was just around the corner.


Giolitti was serious about gelato.  The gelato counter was completely mobbed by couples and kids and locals and tourists all wanting cones from the harassed, white-jacketed gelato slingers.  I quickly gave up trying to see the flavors and noticed the substantial line to pre-pay.  I ordered my medium cone and took the slip to the mob of people at the counter.  After 5-10 minutes of slowly working my way forward, sneaking peeks at flavors, and formulating my plan for ordering, a kid maybe 7 years old wedged his way in front of me, leaving his dad behind.  I thought it would be the kind thing to do to let him see the flavors, but when he reached up, put his ticket on the counter and hailed the clerk, all thoughts of kindness flooded out of me.  I put my ticket next to his and looked the clerk in the eye.  The gelato dude looked at me, looked at the kid, and reached for the kid’s ticket.  Then he looked back at me.  We exchanged knowing smiles, and he filled the order while the bastardino barked squeaky-voiced orders at him.

With the kid out of the way, several more tickets appeared on the high-counter, but the clerk returned to mine, looked at the size and disappeared briefly.  He returned with a chocolate-coated cone and a wry smile.  While in line I’d been able to sneak peeks at a couple of flavors.  I had seen marone glace, in a bin that looked to be nearly untouched.  The green pistachio and red strawberry were super-popular, but I didn’t care.  I wanted the stuff with brown chunks.  And so I ordered.  I wanted marone glace and whatever the gelato guy thought would pair well.  Per usual, he seemed happy with the request, and pointed to the near-black “fondante”.  “Va bene.”  With a scoop of the paddle my cone was filled and the paddle thrown like a ninja star back into the bin.  Then he reached for the “panna,” whipped cream, and handed it over.

Rome gelato

I was glad I ordered a “mediano” instead of the “extra big”.  I munched and slurped as I headed for the piazza, feeling completely at ease with the world.  (Yes I’m aware that food is not love or happiness, but it’s a really enjoyable companion sometimes.)

Parts of Rome shut down in the evening while people stroll along the major shopping district, enjoying the sights and sounds.

Walking in Rome

I joined in.  I walked and looked and wandered into churches, passing the beggars that seem to inhabit, one at a time, the doorsteps of every church in town.

I finally made it to piazza del popolo.

Popolo churches Popolo obelisk Piazza del Popolo

I felt like I was in “Angels and Demons”.  The eerie sky and the domes of the twin churches was surreal.  The square was full of excited people enjoying the break in the rain and the holiday night.  I walked inside to grab a look at the pyramid tomb that was actually in the movie.  It was mostly behind scaffolding – it seems the movie appearance merited a facelift.

I considered finding a church and attending mass (seemed like an interesting experience – mass in Rome on the feast of the immaculate conception), but, as bells began to ring, I walked out of the square and heard a different sound.  I thought the opera was going from a shop stereo system.  I was wrong.  As I rounded the corner into a piazza, the singing got louder.  And I saw four singers on a raised stage.  There were maybe 200 people in front of the stage listening to some of the most beautiful opera I’d ever heard.

For the next hour, I stood in the piazza and listened.  I listened to the church bells ringing, I listened to the singers, I listened to the people around me singing along.  I might have teared up a little.  When the singers had finished their first and second encores (I found myself pondering the similarity between the French word encore and the Italian word ancora), I continued on past the Ara Pacis to Capitol Hill where I climbed the steps and got my first glimpse of the Forum and, in the distance, the Colesseum.

Night Colosseum

It was quiet and beautiful, and a perfect place to decompress and get ready for the next adventure.  There was a lot more of Rome to see.

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December 10, 2009   3 Comments