As I articulated in my last post, I recently spent a week with my family in Rome, Italy. Needless to say, it was pretty incredible, and a trip I’ll remember for a very long time. As I was brainstorming ideas for this post, I was having a truly difficult time narrowing down the whole trip to just a few amazing moments or incredible places. Should I discuss the Bernini sculptures at the Villa Borghese that were so lifelike you could literally see the tears and wrinkles on the bust’s faces? Or perhaps the waiter at the gelateria who chased after my father for walking outside with a beer glass still in his hand? Maybe the 551 stairs to the top of the cupula in the Vatican, or the tomb of Raphael in the Pantheon. There are just too many moments to think of, and every time I remember one, another pops up.
Of course, this is the sign of a worthwhile travel experience: one that was so packed full of special moments that there seems to be a never-ending supply of them…at least, enough of a supply until I can fly back!
So instead, I thought I’d summarize the trip with a few select experiences (26 to be exact), from A to Z. Some may be historical, some cultural, and some just plain cool. The thing they will all have in common, however, is that each one played a role in my trip the other week, and will hopefully give you a little bit more insight on Rome from my perspective. Without further ado, then, let’s begin part 1: A through H (more to come later)!
P.S. Besides graphics, all of these photos were taken by me while on the trip!
A- Ancient Forums
On our second day in the city, we had the exclusive and privileged opportunity to have a behind-the scenes tour of the most ancient part of Rome—the ancient forums and the Colosseum. Pre-booked ahead of time, we had a guide (her name was Vanessa) who brought us through the forums, up to the top of the Palatine Hill, and then inside the depths of the Colosseum to areas normally closed off to visitors.
Now, I’m not a tour person. My family isn’t either. Come to think of it, this may be one of the only tours we’ve ever taken while on a vacation. Given the choice between guided tour and personal exploration, I would much rather get lost wandering the streets of a city than stay in a tame group. Nonetheless, we signed up for this tour simply because of the access it would provide us. As it turns out, I really enjoyed it, especially the Ancient Roman Forums.
What, exactly, are they? I think the real question is what were they? Because now, looking at them, they look like scraps of buildings long demolished, with a quarter of a column here and an inscription there. But before this current version, the forums were the ultimate center of Roman life. They were massive marble buildings elaborately decorated and used as temples, town halls, senate houses, and markets. As we walked through the ruins, our guide described what the full buildings would have looked like, and I was able to picture them in their entire glory in my mind’s eye. Out of these pieces of stone were once immense structures. Builders (slaves, most likely) had painstakingly placed every single one of these bricks and secured them with concrete. That blank stone wall once was covered with pink marble, and that white square on the ground was the base of a 20 foot tall column. I was walking where Romans had once walked, touching the walls of a temple people thousands of years ago had worshiped in. I’ll give the Romans an A for Ancient, but also an A for Amazing, because that’s how the forums were to me.
Ah, Bernini. Bernini the sculptor, Bernini the artist, Bernini the person I would love to jump back in time to and get an autograph from. Of all the artists in Rome, besides maybe Raphael, I think that Bernini probably scored the best public relations deal. You cannot go two blocks anywhere in the city without stumbling upon one of his distinctive pieces. And I love him for it, because a. Sculpture is my favorite type of art, and b. Bernini is my favorite sculptor, so everywhere I went I got to admire his handiwork.
If I were to describe a Bernini piece in one word, I would probably choose “Alive.” Not just life-like, but Alive. Whether it was a man wrestling an octopus in the center of a fountain in the Piazza Navona, David pulling back the band of his slingshot while taking on Goliath on a podium in the Villa Borghese, or Poseidon commanding a fleet of smooth, foaming horses rising out of the roughly cut marble rocks of the Trevi fountain, Bernini’s sculptures have true movement and so mimic human qualities that I wouldn’t flinch if Hades winked at me from his marble stand while tearing Persephone down from Earth to the underworld in Rape of Persephone. I wouldn’t be surprised if the visible tear on Persephone’s face were wet to the touch, or if purple bruises began to bloom from the indentations on her thigh where her captor grips her tightly.
Bernini isn’t afraid to display figures as they are, with ugliness and beauty intertwined together. He does not lie, but merely shows. And in what he shows, he draws out life from what is not living. That is a true gift.
Yes, I did just write cats. Not just because they appear to be everywhere in Rome, but because of a very special café we stopped at in Ostiense for a casual mug of tea and…wait for it…an hour of social time with my favorite animals ever. They don’t call me a crazy cat lady for nothing!
What café am I talking about? The Romeow Cat Café. If the name weren’t amazing enough (I’m a sucker for a good pun), the experience is even more special, because along with being entirely vegan and vegetarian and serving up delicious treats, fresh smoothies, and hand-pressed juices, patrons at this café receive a complimentary side of cuddles. Throughout the small, two level shop, upwards of 10 cats roam freely, winding their way around diner’s legs, sleeping in patches of sun, and jumping from shelf to shelf on the walls.
As we enjoyed our refreshments, we were able to pet and cozy up to cats galore, and take a lot of selfies. I was in kitty heaven, and I’ll admit, I didn’t want to leave at all. The café was such a fun, quirky, and memorable experience, and one that definitely joins the list of coolest places to enjoy an espresso in the world. Pretty purr-fect, if you ask me.
Doppio. “Double,” in Italian. Also known as my drink of choice on this trip, because I didn’t go one day without (at least) one “Espresso doppio” drink. I tend to think of myself as an outlier in the coffee world, because unlike the majority of people, I drink my caffeine black and bitter. The blacker the better. No add ons, no fancy foams, and no 30 second long Starbucks orders (baristas love me). Then again, that’s American coffee. Which in Italy, translates to “watered down tourist drink.” Italian espresso is the real deal, hard core coffee, and it is strong. Of course, not too strong for me, which I like to think helped me earn some respect in the eyes of Italian baristas.
When we would go for breakfast in the mornings, my family would always order like this: Mom “un cappuccino,” Dad “un cappuccino,” sister “un cappuccino.” The barista would take the order, nodding distractedly while busily preparing 5 others simultaneously. Then they’d get to me, expecting another cappuccino, and I would say: “espresso doppio.” They’d look up, size me up, probably wondering if this 18 year old American knew what she was getting herself into, before realizing that I was serious. Sometimes they’d ask if I wanted milk? Sugar? No. No. Plain. Then I would get a small smile, or a conspiratory nod of the head. Italian coffee respect. This girl means business. My Espresso doppio boosted me one step higher on the coffee totem pole. When I easily knocked that drink back, I could pretend that I was a genuine Roman local.
On our last day in the city, we wanted to see Rome from a bird’s eye view, way above the buildings. We got our chance at the Vittoriano, a massive white and gold government building near the Colosseum. Il Vittoriano is humongous, and rises far above many of Rome’s buildings. It stands out for its extravagance, and while I personally think it was beautiful, many Romans dislike it, as they believe it represents unnecessary and extraneous spending. They think it is “too much,” and have even dubbed it (among other names) “The Typewriter,” and “The Wedding Cake.” Its size, though, makes it a perfect candidate for “Roma Dal Cielo,” or “Rome from the sky.” Visitors can ride a glass elevator to the roof of the top terrace, for a breathtaking panoramic view.
While we took the ride up, I couldn’t help but picturing the final scene of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, when the elevator bursts into the sky. Once on the roof, I had a great time just looking all around me, drinking in the splendor of the city. There were maps that helped identify buildings, and I was able to search for the places we had been, and even tried to find the location of our apartment. It was a fantastic final monument to visit, because it provided the context to the city as a whole. I was able to see all the individual parts of it that I had visited separately all laid out together, as part of the one unified area called Rome, Italy.
Rome is chock full of fountains. Many of them, like the Trevi fountain, which we visited at night, are world-famous. What I thought was the most interesting, however, was not these fountains built for art, but the many smaller fountains all around built for practical use. Here in the United States, I grew up thinking of water fountains as dirty structures built to harvest and spread germs. I associate them with tepid water and rusty faucets, definitely not my ideal drinking solution. I much prefer bottled. In Rome, however, faucets and fountains and taps are everywhere. Many street corners have small taps with pumps that pump out water, and they are used constantly. What amazed me is that the water that comes out is consistently pure and delicious. While I wouldn’t touch a drinking fountain in the US, I would have no problem filling up a water bottle on the side of the street in Rome.
These fountains drove harder the incredible point that Ancient Romans were so incredibly sophisticated. They were the first people to invent indoor plumbing, heated floors, warm baths, and modern sewer systems. Long before anyone else, they had built successful aqueducts and were powering entire cities with clean, fresh water 24/7 out of pipes. Now, I can still drink from these same systems, and get clean water out of it as well. That’s pretty remarkable, if you ask me.
Italy without Gelato is like Ben without Jerry. They are intrinsically connected. If you are reading this and you don’t know what gelato is, I insist that you take an immediate intervention and go and seek it out right away, because it is delicious. Gelato, or the Italian version of ice cream, is literally available everywhere in the city. People walk around all day holding cups or cones of the cool treat, in every flavor imaginable. Gelato, just like espresso, is part of the Roman culture. I guess we can add that to the ever growing list of things we all must thank and worship the Romans for.
Our family enjoyed our fair share of gelato on our trip. And while it comes it hundreds of flavors, there are two that you absolutely must have if you want to truly experience gelato like an Italian. The first is stracciatella. I like to think of it as the Italian version of cookies and cream. It’s essentially vanilla base with mini chocolate chips, which sounds super simple, but I swear is the best stuff available. The second flavor, my mom’s personal favorite, is “Frutti di Bosco,” which translates to “Fruits of the forest.” Just like stracciatella, you won’t find a gelateria that doesn’t serve this iconic blend of berries, usually fuscia in color and ideal for a refreshing snack on a sunny day. The most uniquely flavored gelato that I found made me laugh out loud, and was good enough for a picture to chronicle it. It was bright blue, and labeled “Viagra.” I didn’t try it, but I am certainly curious as to how that…special…flavor was interpreted (and what context it’s eaten in….).
In terms of specific stores, I’m not particular, but my family fell in love with a place called El Giolitti. We stumbled across it by accident walking home from dinner one night, and sought it out again later on in the week. We weren’t the only ones, either. There was a line out the door, made of locals and tourists alike. When in Rome…check it out! But really, any gelato is good gelato, period.
H- Hadrian’s Tomb
The Emperor Hadrian ruled Rome from 117 to 138. In my opinion, he was one of the best Emperors, simply because of the way he used his power and money. Instead of building himself a crazily extravagant palace (cough, cough, like Nero), he instead focused his energy on commissioning art and especially architecture, rebuilding and fixing up dilapidated buildings. It is thanks to him that we have some of the best preserved Roman monuments now.
Consider, for example, the Pantheon. When I visited that incredible round structure with the breathtaking open spotlight in the middle, made floor to ceiling of smooth, perfect marble, I thought for sure it must be a modern reconstruction. I mean, I had just come from seeing the remains of the Roman Forums, essentially piles of rock and bits of columns. In reality, though, the Pantheon is just as old as the forums, and not a replica reconstruction by any means. We can thank Hadrian for that, because he supported fixing up the Pantheon, and many other buildings like it, for use during his rule and to demonstrate the splendor of Rome. His efforts helped preserve an ancient, incredible building, and give us a small glimpse of how breathtaking Rome must have been when all the architecture was fully intact.
Considered one of the “Five Good Emperors,” Hadrian was liked by many and is honored in Roman history. His ashes lie in what is known as Hadrian’s Tomb, in the Castel Sant’Angelo, along the bank of the River Tiber. Although I never got to actually go inside the Castle, our apartment was a 2 minute walk from the river and the bridge that one must cross to enter the castle. On our last night, my family and I walked across the bridge at sunset, taking in the gorgeous view of the water, the Bernini angel sculptures decorating the bridge (I wasn’t kidding when I said he is everywhere!), and the looming castle across the Tiber.
What I do find ironic is that, of all the buildings in Rome, Hadrian’s Tomb might have been my least favorite. Compared to the intricately designed and thought out marble monuments elsewhere in the city, the harsh, solid rock structure of the Castle seems out of place to me. The man who is responsible for preserving so much beauty now rests in a clunky building quite different from those he restored. That being said, however, it’s a castle. In Rome. No matter what, it’s special, unique, and overall awesome, just like the city it rests in and the Emperor it honors.
And with that, my friends, I conclude Rome from A to Z Part 1. As you can see, there’s so much to tell. I am excited to continue sharing tidbits from my trip. Keep an eye out for part 2!