Traveling can be full of surprises, one of the reasons I love to travel. Even traveling to places you’ve been lots of times before.
I wasn’t too keen on coming back to Rome, particularly in August. Been there several times, too hot, too many tourists. A lot of old rocks. But how could Dan & Laura come to Italy and not show Elizabeth and Charlie Rome? So from Venice we hopped on a high-speed train for a comfortable ride south. Or at least, it was comfortable for me. I had headphones on and was listening to music while a baby cried and cried in the back of our car. And then apparently some guy got up and started brow beating the mother about getting that kid to be quiet. According to Dan & Laura, who were sitting closer to them, the fight went on and on and on. And I missed the whole thing, blissfully enveloped in music.
To my surprise, I loved Rome. Yes, it was unbearably hot, well up into the 90s every day. And yes, over the years – I first came to Rome in 1975 when I was stationed just a little south in Naples, and this was the fourth time Mark & I have been there in the last 20 years – I’ve seen the Roman Forum and the Colosseum and St. Peter’s too many times.
What I discovered, though, is that after you’re done with the regular tourist haunts there are amazing churches and museums that aren’t remotely crowded. I discovered I love Renaissance Rome perhaps even more than ancient Rome. You can just stumble into some church that you’ve never heard of before and find some Caravaggio or Raphael or Bernini or Filippo Lippi or something that just grabs you. Similarly, some of the lesser-visited museums are extraordinary. So despite myself, I loved Rome, though to be clear August is not ideal.
It’s worth noting that we did the usual stuff: we went to the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, St. Peter’s, the Trevi Fountain, and up to the Palatine Hill. Thanks to Laura & Dan’s planning efforts we had tickets to the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums. We even had a tour of the Vatican crypt, with St. Peter’s alleged burial site. As interesting as those things are, though, there are only so many times you need to see them. Yeah, definitely a First World problem. So what was it that I found this time that made Rome great?
There were two museums that were really great. The Capitoline Museum isn’t quite off the beaten trail; it’s a pretty standard “must see” destination. Still, it was not at all crowded and had lots of good stuff – great old statues; a beautiful painting gallery with all the Titians, Tintorettos, and Caravaggios you’d expect; a spectacular view of the Roman Forum. And it had one of the best audio guides I’ve ever used. Then there was the National Museum of Rome (Museo Nazionale Romano: Palazzo Massimo alle Terme), all but empty except for a great collection of statues and mosaics. Totally worth the sweat I worked up walking to it in that god-awful heat.
The lesser-known churches were certainly some of my favorite stops. The Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, built on the spot where Emperor Nero was supposedly buried and where his ghost was still haunting Rome, with two Caravaggios and a Raphael chapel. The Church of San Luigi dei Francesi with three Caravaggios. The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, with 13th century mosaics and a piece of the baby Jesus’s manger; the real one! The Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, built on an old temple to the goddess Minerva, with a statue by Bernini outside, a little-known Michelangelo inside, and the (headless) body of St. Catherine of Siena under the alter; recall that we saw her head in Siena, so now we’ve got the whole picture covered. The Church of the Jesuits (Chiesa del Gesù), where Jesuit-founder Ignatius Loyola lived the last 12 years of his life and where he’s buried in an opulent tomb. The Basilica of St. Peter in Chains with its stunning Moses by Michelangelo and the very chains that held St. Peter in prison. The Basilica of St. Andrew della Valle, with a couple old pope tombs and just general awesomeness.
You get the idea. It seemed as though any church we went into just drew us in and gave us something to gawp at. And we’ve seen a lot of churches over the years!
So we loved Rome. Our hotel was a few rooms in a residential building right smack on Piazza Navona, perhaps the best location we’ve ever had in Rome. The hotel wasn’t perfect – on our first night we got stuck in a brutally hot and airless elevator for 40 minutes or so – but the location was ideal. Then there was the 50-minute wait at a store for a five-minute transaction to add time to our phone SIM cards. It was classically Italian in the confusion, the absence of any idea how long it would take, the staff taking repeated cigarette breaks while there were huge numbers of customers waiting.
And then there was that perfect moment, when you saw Italians had learned a thing or two about tour groups. At Michelangelo’s statue of Moses, a dazzling work of art intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II, there was a sign that read in Italian, English, and French
It is forbidden to stop in front of the statue of Moses to give explanations to the groups.
We were so impressed; Rome really does change. Everyone should do that, we thought. Until Dan and Laura went there the next day … and said there was a tour guide standing right there with her group blocking everyone else’s view while she droned on and on about the statue. Damn, and they almost got it right.
From Rome we’re off to a week-long “vacation” in the Loire Valley. But first here are more of the reasons I fell in love with Rome all over again.