Monday, February 16, 2009

Rome is for romantic

I felt the mandatory sense of awe as I retraced the steps of Julius Caesar and Marcus Aurelius in the Roman Forum. As I photographed the imposing pillars and the ruined shrines to Venus, I kept reminding myself that I stood in the former epicenter of the all-conquering Roman Empire, the birthplace of democracy.

After a two-hour wait in 33-degree rain outside the Vatican Museum, I spent a good 20 minutes gawking at Michelangelo’s magnificent Sistine Chapel ceiling, its surprisingly brilliant original colors (which I doubt any modern art historian would have predicted) revealed after a restoration project sponsored by a Japanese television network.

The layers of Rome’s rich history confounded me. In the backstreets behind the Coliseum I found the small church of San Clemete. I entered a 12th-century exterior, descended to a fourth-century basilica, and followed another staircase down to a mysterious pre-Christian Mithraic temple, which led to a 2,000 year-old Roman alley, now nearly 30-feet underground.

Despite my respect for the Eternal City as the birthplace of Western Civilization, I must confess that my most elated moments in Rome included sipping reputedly the world’s finest espresso in the famed (and consequently crammed with customers) Caffe San Eustachio by a handsome barista and discovering what I consider to be possibly the world’s most romantic street, Via Giulia. I felt a giddy sense of euphoria as I admired the pastel Renaissance palaces with Victorian lampposts and ivy-spilling balconies, the elegant 16th-century piazzas, and the crumbling churches behind cast-iron gates lining the intimate cobbled avenue. In the Giotto Gelateria, a favorite of Pope John Paul and Audrey Hepburn in A Roman Holiday, two scoops of dark chocolate and pistachio gelato had a similar affect on my state of mind, as would discovering an illuminated angelic fountain at the end of a silent cobblestone alley strung with Christmas lights.

Via Giulia was hands-down my favorite street in Rome, and Trastevere was my preferred neighborhood. Separated from the heart of Rome (and the tourists) by the Tiber River, the dodgy Ponte Sisto leads to the scruffy and colorful bohemian quarter, rife with lovely dilapidated buildings and piazzas that house rustic restaurants and dusty bakeries.

Romantic Rome continued to woo me as I explored the sumptuous palace known as the Borghese Gallery. I stood mesmerized in front of the sensuous Bernini sculptures Apollo and Daphne and The Rape of Proserpina, convinced that the masterpieces were worth the 30-minute walk through the muddy maze of the vast Villa Borghese park in the pouring rain and the subsequent two-hour wait to enter the reservations-only gallery. I suspect my reaction was related to the fact that rampant reprints of famous paintings diminish most of the appreciation we feel when seeing the originals, while the intricacies of a sculpture simply can’t be captured in a two-dimensional reproduction. So seeing the actual work retains the capacity to fascinate.

Despite my passion for ice cream and atmospheric streets, my interest in Rome did go a little deeper than la dolce vita. I made my way to see Peter’s chains and Michelangelo’s Moses in the cathedral San Pietro in Vincoli and climbed Aventino Hill to sees the first crucifix. I made the steep and curvy trek up Janiculum Hill (without sidewalks) to view the sun set over Rome, and I took a bus to Via Appia Antica, the ancient road outside the Roman Walls, to tour the catacombs of San Castillo.

The early Christians buried their dead rather than following the Roman custom of cremation and didn’t bother to embalm them as they considered Christ’s return and the resurrection of the deceased believers imminent. They visited the underground cemeteries to share communion and prayer with their dead relatives and light a candle in their memories. Contrary to myth, the hundreds of miles of catacombs were never used to escape persecution, being well known to the public.

Yes, I found the catacombs fascinating, but truthfully, Rome won me over with its romantic fountains, captivating sculpture, faded grandeur, legions of cats, heavenly cappuccinos, and first-class gelato.

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