Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Eternal City

Our children had 3 week days off from school in October for autumn break so we decided to visit Rome, Italy.  I was very psyched to get back to Rome, which I consider one of the greatest cities in Europe and definitely one of my all-time favorites.  Walking around the historic center of Rome feels kind of like walking through a time-capsule that dates back 2,000 or more years.  Not only does Rome feature amazing ancient architecture, but it also showcases masterpieces from the Renaissance period.

Trevi Fountain
We rented a little apartment near the Campo De Fiori square in the historic center of Rome.  I have never been to Rome in October before and was first surprised how warm it still was and secondly how many tourists were there.  My first two visits were in 1993 and in 2000, both during the summer. I remember the city being crowded then, but that was the summer. I expected October to be a bit more mellow, but judging by the crowds it seemed as if it was still the high season.  Campo De Fiori square is situated very close to the Tiber river across the bridge from trendy Trastevere neighborhood and also a short walk from the touristic Piazza Navona.  The first day was spent just getting orientated with our new surroundings and then eating some nice pizza and gelato.  It seems that every day we ate well, indulging on thin crust pizza, nice pastas and other Italian specialties.

Day 2 was spent taking a nice tour of the Colosseum, Palatine hill and Roman Forum.  We entered the Colosseum first with the tour guide who nicely explained the history and use of the Colosseum.  It was amazing to think about how much blood was shed during the days of the gladiators and to think how long this structure has existed.  It was my third time visiting this awesome structure but it still felt very interesting and inspirational.  We had another guide during our visit of the Roman Forum who explained the importance of all the buildings around the Palatine hill and Roman Forum.  We learned that back in those days the simple spices of salt and pepper were like gold and were stored in safes.  Having a supply of salt was the key to storing your food back then since there was obviously no refrigeration.

The Colosseum
On day 3 we entered into a different country.  Well, if you consider the tiny Vatican City another country then yes. We followed the Tiber river just 1 mile north from our apartment and ended up smack in the middle of the center of Catholicism.  We soon joined hordes of tourists ready to enter the largest cathedral in the world that is St. Peters in the Vatican City.  It might have been smack in the middle of October, but this is actually still high season in Italy and the line to get in St. Peters was about 45 minutes from the time we arrived.  We walked a bit around and marveled at the grandeur and beauty of this place.  The showcase of St. Peters is the La Pieta sculpture by Michelangelo which is featured just inside the cathedral.  Later my daughter and I decided to climb up the 320 + stairs to the dome at the top of the cathedral.  We raced up the stairs challenging each other to see who could keep the pace longest.  Once we reached the top we were rewarded with some of the best views in the entire city of Rome.  We marveled at the horizon and all the majestic buildings below us.  This was truly a special place to visit and won't soon be forgotten.  Once back down, we rewarded our stair climbing efforts with some tasty Italian gelato and planned our visit to the very popular Vatican Museums. This is another place I have visited in earlier trips to Rome, but it would take a lifetime or more to see all the exhibits.  The main reason most people visit the Vatican Museums is to see the incredible frescoes on the ceiling of Sistine Chapel.  This was Michelangelo's masterpiece and he spent 4 years of sweat and tears completing it.  We trudged through the Vatican taking the shortest path towards the Sistine Chapel but it seemed that everyone else had the same idea and we were following the crowd like sheep being led to the slaughter. We did see some interesting pieces of art and sculptures along the way, but since I was carrying my son most of the way, I really just wanted to get to the Sistine Chapel.  We eventually reached the Chapel and arrived there with a huge group of tourists.  Words cannot really describe this place, one must visit on their own.  I can say this, whether you appreciate art or not you will find the painted ceiling magical beyond words.

St. Peter's basilica Vatican City
On day 4 we would take a bit of a break from the major museums and large groups of tourists.  We walked up past the famous Spanish Steps to the Borghese Park.  The Borghese Park is a large, sprawling park just North of the historic center which features a villa, a famous art gallery and lots of open space for taking a break from the busy city.  We took a brief visit to the famous Borghese gallery, which features work by Raphael and Bernini.  Soon after that we decided to rent a four person bike and pedaled all around the park, which was great fun and the family thoroughly enjoyed the break from the museum lines.  I highly recommend this park which is a nice respite from the busy city.

Early morning job near the Tiber river
Day 5 was our final full day in Rome and we decided to visit the famous underground tunnel burial system known as the Catacombs.  These Catacombs were the burial place for many popes and Christians during the time of Christian persecution from the Romans during the 2nd and 3rd centuries.  It is actually an amazing piece of history that could easily be overlooked when visiting Rome. Just when you thought you had seen all that Rome has to offer, there is always something else lurking around the corner.  These Catacombs are a bit out of the way for many people so they must be visited either by city bus down the famous Via Appia Antica or by a tour bus.  We decided to take a regular city bus which took around 45 minutes from the center.  The Appian way is one of the most famous roads in Italy, if not all of Europe. It is the main road which took people, including Roman soldiers, back to Rome after their conquests.  It is still a very neat looking road, mainly of cobblestone. The San Callisto catacomb we visited was 4 levels deep (20 meters total) and 20 kilometers of total space.  So, as you can imagine the underground system was immense and buried a total of approx. 500,000 people.  The tour guide, who was a visiting priest from India, took us below and we walked around a small portion of the vast system.  He took us to the famous crypt of Popes, where St. Callisto himself was beheaded by the Romans. Another day in Rome and another amazing piece of very old history.

Near the
 Catacombs and Appian way
The eternal city is an amazing place to visit and probably one of my favorite cities in all of Europe.  There is so much to see and do for just about everyone.  It is a city of arts, ancient history, food and so much more.  However as much as we enjoyed Rome, I would probably not take young children there for more than a few days.  While it is a great city, it is not loaded with many children's activities besides eating pizza and gelato.  :)  With that said, I have no regrets and thoroughly enjoyed this visit.  Since I threw a coin into the Trevi fountain, I will definitely be coming back to Rome again.