Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Walking Through History or How I almost decided to start going to Mass again‏

It is an odd thing, indeed, to spend a day walking through a city that has masterfully combined an ancient past with a high-tech present. Around every corner is either a crumbling monument or an internet café. It is an amazing juxtaposition that never ceased to impress me during my visit in Rome. That I could, in one moment, be sitting on the foundation wall of an ancient Roman temple, and in the next, be catching the "Electronic Bus" to the Vatican. Still, that's what I did all day yesterday...shuttled back and forth between history and the future.

To begin, I thought the Colosseum should definitely come first. It's iconic, it's on every postcard, it's just...first. Well, when you come out of that Metro stop, there is absolutely no denying that you're in Rome. Right in front of you, smaller than you had perhaps expected, is IT. The Colosseum. There's definitely a bit of wow factor involved in seeing it in that first moment, but I have to admit that, once I was inside, I had a little difficulty maintaining my wow. I suspect that, having seen it so many times in movies and History Channel specials, I was a little "over it". Also, let's not forget that all of our modern stadiums are modeled on this thing, so it's not as though we're unfamiliar with it as a general concept. I was bummed not to be walking around with my mouth gaping, but I have to say, nobody else seemed to be too staggered, either. In all honesty, I walked around and took pictures with more of a sense of obligation than joy. My favorite parts were the little details. The written carvings being worked on behind roped-off areas, the brown and white cat that snoozed in the sun while being photographed by a gang of squealing Japanese girls, the stairs covered in moss and leading to nowhere. My most un-favorite part? Climbing the steps to the second floor. Oh god, those Romans knew how to build a step. A tall step. By the time I had climbed all 500 of them (well, it felt like 500), my legs were on fire and I was ready to hurl myself off of some ramparts. The view wasn't even that much improved, goddamn them. I was out of there in short order.

Time to head over to the Roman Forum, something I had been looking forward to seeing much more than the Colosseum. It was a bit of a trek to the Entrance to Roman Forum and Palatine Archaeological Area, and once inside, it quickly became obvious that one was required to first enjoy Palatine Hill before heading down to the Roman Forum. Yes, a hill, a huge hill, after all those steps at the Colosseum. Not to sound like whiny, out-of-shape, misery of a baby, but well...FUCK. I didn't want to climb any fucking hill. sigh However, since the ancient Romans neglected to invent an elevator as part of their magnificent contribution to history, there was nothing for it but to s l o w l y climb the stairs up the hill. Once I gaspingly reached the top, I staggered over to the nearest railing for a breather, and stretched out beneath me was a lovely interior field of a villa. Or something like that. I didn't bother with any guidebooks on this trip, figuring I'd just wing it, with common knowledge and high school social studies as my guide. I'll probably just spring for a guidebook next time, all things considered. :-)

Anyway, after taking in the view, I sat on a bench for awhile and then filled my water bottle from one of the ancient fountains built into the mountain. One of the things I had also really been looking forward to on this trip was drinking from some of the fountains around Rome. Apparently, their water is considered to be some of the best in the world, and there are fountains all over town where local people go to fill up large water bottles for their house. If this is true, and I know it to be, then someone should explain to me why restaurants never offer you tap water. In fact, tired of paying 2.50 Euros for a bottle of mineral water with every meal, I once asked the waiter for some regular water and he REFUSED. Said it wasn't possible. But, my frustrating restaurant experiences are a chapter in and of themselves.

Back to the enormous Palatine Hill. It was lovely, quite serene after the bustle of the city, but I could have lived my life without seeing it, to be frank. There were various ruins scattered around it and a nice garden. Gorgeous view into the distance and down into the Forum. Speaking of the Forum, it was there I was trying to get, and after consulting with a similarly hill-hating family from New York, we finally found the stairs down the other side of the hill. Since it had been raining off and on all day, the stairs were wet, and, as some of you know, I am terrified of falling down steps. It was a bit of a nightmare getting down all those steps, let me tell you, but it wasn't as slow-going as it could have been since they weren't too slippery. Once down those first steps, there were more steps, and then more steps, and then a few more just for good measure. The Roman Forum is, after all, a good 25 feet below the modern street level of Rome.

Once I had made it down to the lowest level, it was nice to just be able to stroll from ruin to ruin, pillar to pillar, temple to temple, and imagine the ancient Romans doing exactly the same thing. This was downtown Rome for Caesar, if you can imagine it. The temple of the Vestal Virgins was here! It was, in short, ground zero for the ancient Romans, and that just took my breath away. I sat on a building foundation for a long time, watching everyone come up the path, trying to picture them wearing togas and generally failing.

One thing about the Roman Forum, I am sad to inform the less-coordinated members of my family is that, if you make it up the hill steps and then down the other hill steps, you are still not out of the woods. The ground is sometimes paved with a mix of chunked up red rock sticking up at odd angles, and sometimes with broad slate stones that are usually uneven and certainly not currently remaining in any uniform system. If you stare too long at a passing temple and forget where you're walking, you are, essentially, just begging to fall and crack an ankle. I saw several people nearly accomplish that feat while I was sitting there. I suspect this is why well-to-do Romans would be carried around on a litter by their devoted manservants. OK, maybe I've just seen that in movies, but the idea certainly did cross my mind as I was leaping from stepping stone to stepping stone.

The day was wearing on, but not nearly as fast as I had thought. All that work, and I had only just made it to noon! So, with the focus on history, I decided to head over to the Vatican on one of the cute electronic buses. Thank god I spent the extra 2.50 on that bus map because it has been invaluable to me. There seem to be hardly any tourists on the buses, either, which is another huge perk. Anyway, this was my first time riding the bus, so I was kind of excited to see parts of town far from the Metro. It certainly didn't disappoint. Around the first bend was an enormous monument at the Piazza Venezia that just took my breath away. Enormous, white marble, statues of flying horses on top...it was a gargantuan building that looked like it would be the world headquarters in an alien-invasion movie. As in, they wouldn't even need to ask to be taken to our leader; they'd just show up at this place and expect him (or her) to be there.

Riding on this bus was a pure visual feast, but certainly not an auditory or kinesthetic one. The streets in this part of town seem to be as ancient as the Forum itself, and are consequently totally uneven. The bus shook and slammed and banged with every forward roll of the wheels. It was akin to being in the business end of a jackhammer. There were moments when the front bumper would actually seem to slam onto the street. It was madness, but I enjoyed every minute. Especially when we drove by the river. By then, things had evened out so it wasn't quite as noisy of a thrashing. The river area was just achingly beautiful. I wished I could be strolling across the bridge right then, taking a moment to drape myself across the railing and watch the river swish by.

But, 383 years of Catholic history was calling me...yes, that's right. St. Peter's Basilica. There really are no words to describe the smack in the face that waits for you as you walk into St. Peter's Square and see the Basilica in the distance. It's a place you've seen a thousand times on tv, but it's absolutely staggering in person. The scale, the grandeur, the overwhelming feeling of being somewhere important and vital to history...it's more than a little overwhelming. You can see the Sistine Chapel, the building where the Pope lives (how well I remember when Pope John Paul II was dying and all the news stations kept a sort of death-watch camera focused on his window), and just the amazing structure of it all. I didn't know this at the time, but apparently the amazing Bernini was the architect of this outdoor space. It is as masterful as any of his sculptures, but probably even more so due to its scale.

After standing around with my eyes as big as saucers, I took a bunch of photos and then headed straight for the Basilica. Nothing prepares you for it. Nothing possibly ever could. Nothing in all your previous life experiences can prepare you for the vast feast for the eyes that is St. Peter's. It swallows you whole, fills a space in your heart that you didn't even know was empty, and makes you want to convert to Catholicism that afternoon. It is the grandest church in Christendom, and that is no fucking joke. I'll be honest here, folks, I walked in the Basilica and more or less instantly choked up. I'm choking up right now just thinking about it. I'm sure that this has a lot to do with my history as a fallen-away Catholic, but it's also just the building. No, this cannot even be called a "building"...that's far too simple of a word. It needs its own word.

In any event, I walked throughout the church, my jaw scraping the floor as I went. Everywhere you look, things are just in the most massive scale you could ever imagine. It should be the 8th wonder of the world. You will just have to look at pictures of it, because my vocabulary doesn't include enough words to do it justice.

And now, after all this writing, the internet cafe man is telling me that it's time to close up shop. So, I guess that means I'll be finishing this up tomorrow morning before I hit the road back to Poitiers! Argh!

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