Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Roman holiday

An American girl studying in Rome confided to me that she’d had enough of the chaotic, laissez fair Roman lifestyle and was ready to be back in the States. I responded that I didn’t have much interest in visiting the city. From what I’d heard it was dirty and hectic and even seedy. I didn’t add that when I thought of Rome I pictured tourists clamoring to take photos of piles of rocks and headless statues in desolate dirt plazas while tour guides droned on like high school history textbooks. I preferred to explore more charming, atmospheric, or exotic locations.

Two months later I would find myself in Rome, and as anyone who knows the city would have predicted, my conceptions were irrational and unfair.

I arrived to the Eternal City after a six-hour Christmas Eve train ride from Venice. I tried to look extra confident in the intimidating Termini train station because I’d been warned about the aggressive pick pockets. After settling into my hostel near the Vatican, I decided to take an exploratory walk, which inadvertently turned out to be a full-blown nighttime tour of the centro storico.

I crossed the Tiber River, passing the gates of the Aurelian wall as I entered Piazza de Popolo, with its 3,200 year-old obelisk sacked from Egypt and grand fountain guarded by fierce stone lions. I followed the Christmas lights down Via Condotti, the designer-label-worshipping city’s best known shopping street, which led me to the beautiful and baroque Piazza Spagna and the Spanish Steps, a favorite haunt of sensitive literary types like Keats and Shelley.

I then looked for the Trevi Fountain and found it roaring and gleaming in all its after-dark glory, and proceeded to make my way to the 2,000-year-old Pantheon. Inside the vast open building I looked up through the open dome into the black sky and tried to wrap my mind around the fact that I was in the middle of perhaps the most majestic and certainly the best-preserved structure remaining from the ancient world, built as a pagan temple centuries before Christianity and churches even existed.

I got a little disoriented in search of the Coliseum. In between crosswalks, I saw a father cross a busy street with his toddler while motorcycles weaved by. A few yards behind the mother sprinted while pushing a stroller and nearly got hit by a speeding car. At first I wasn’t about to do as the Romans and step out in the street as hordes of cars came at me at frightening speeds. Although pedestrian crossings were marked, there were no stoplights. But after daring to cross the street a few times, I realized that in Rome, pedestrians rule. No, the cars don’t stop at crosswalks if they don't see anyone crossing, even when pedestrian lights are flashing, but they will always yield to pedestrians, no matter where they cross. At first I ran across the street, but a Roman gave me counterintuitive advice, warning me not to run but rather to walk so the cars had time to see me. It worked every time, and I felt like royalty whenever I strolled across, with the frenzied traffic submitting to my whims.

When I arrived to the grandiose traffic circle that is Piazza Venezia, I had to stop and gawk at the imposing wedding cake of a fortress dripping with marble icing on top of the hill in front of me. (The building, II Vittoriano, is an inappropriately modern 19th-century structure built by a former prime minister on a power trip. It not only destroyed the harmony of the surrounding ancient ruins, but also blocks the view to Palatine Hill.)

After escaping a balding but long-haired man with an impressive layer of yellow film covering his teeth who insisted on giving me directions, I walked toward the Coliseum. I passed what I didn’t know were the Trajan Baths in my approach to the artfully lit triumph of ancient architecture. As traffic sped by, I tried to envision crowds roaring for gladiator battles and wild animal fights, the sand floor absorbing gallons of blood.

As I made my way back, I climbed the steps up to Michelangelo’s masterpiece of Renaissance symmetry, Piazza del Campidoglio, and later stopped to wander around the buzzing Christmas toy market in Piazza Navona with its carousel and sweets vendors set up around the spectacular Bernini fountains.

I found myself by the Tiber River again, but couldn’t find the bridge I’d crossed earlier. I figured I’d just keep following the river until I found it. But half an hour later I was still walking, and it was getting colder and darker and had started to rain and I wasn’t passing any people. I had no idea where I was or if it was safe, and I was in ROME the city that everyone warns you about. My frustration shifted to fear. About another half an hour later when I was cursing my decision to go to Italy over the holidays by myself and thinking I would pay about anything for a taxi if one would ever pass, I glanced back and realized that I’d just passed Saint Peter’s Cathedral.

As tired as I was, I had to backtrack and make my way to Saint Peter’s Square. Michelangelo’s giant golden dome (the world's largest) overlooked the empty plaza, which glistened in the light rain. A bright orange Contiki tour bus pulled up, and a pack of cranky, sweatshirt-clad early 20-somethings grudgingly got off, huddling up together muttering things like “Where are we now? I thought we were going to the Vatican.” and “When do we get to the hotel? Let’s hope it’s better than Paris” while ignoring their tour guide’s recited a speech. That was all I needed to realize that wasting an hour lost on a cold Roman night beat being herded around from one monument to the next with complaining strangers. I was meant to discover Italy on my own.

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