S. Worthen (owlfish) wrote,
S. Worthen


When I was a young teenager, we had a family trip to Rome. All of our light luggage was stolen out of the rental car, and I have held that against the city ever since. It didn't help that - it seemed - everytime a family member of mine returned, they had something else stolen.

This week, Rome redeemed itself. It was my first time back since that exhausting, intense, fraught trip of years ago; this time, it was relaxing, sociable, and charming. I was delighted by how pedestrian-friendly the city center is; by how walkable it is in scale; by its rich, layered, historical intensity. In our approximately forty-eight hours there, we went to events at the American Academy, saw friends and acquaintances, saw the Pope, the basilica of St. Peter's, the Pantheon, toured the Capitoline Hill, and ate ice cream in Trastevere. We walked a lot. It wasn't intense or exhausting - we were too laid back for that - but it was a very rich trip, both touristically, socially, and even, to a certain degree, professionally. We may not have made it to WallCon, having been in the wrong country for last weekend's walking tour of Hadrian's Wall, but, in consolation, we saw - at least from the outside - Hadrian's Tomb, Hadrian's Pantheon, and Marcus Aurelius's Aurelian's Wall.

The trip was also a good introduction to the American Academy in Rome. We stayed* there, had dinner there one night, toured the kitchen and vegetable garden, and appreciated the now eighteen-month-old Rome Sustainable Food Program which has improved the quality of edibles at the Academy immeasurably. The food was excellent, a rare evening of fishy goodness, we heard, since it's harder or more expensive to get seasonal sustainably-fished fish. Behind the building, the grounds are green, dappled with olive trees and, off to one side, a relatively young herb and vegetable garden. After dinner, it was being planted with tomatoes.

An accident of timing meant we were in the city at the same time as Trustees Week (and at the same time as the UEFA Cup final, which meant the city was swamped with footballers). Trustees Week meant that we were there for the once-a-year Open Studio event for the artists and landscape architects in residence, strolling from spacious, airy studio to studio, admiring the views from high-up balconies, appreciating and critiquing the work, meeting interesting people, sipping wine, and eating nibbles. We didn't just see the heights of the buildings, but its depths as well: a Roman aqueduct runs underneath the building, its passage marked by a brass line, label, and manhole cover.

Another benefit of being there for Trustees Week was being able to come along on our host's walking tour of the Capitoline Hill, a wonderful opportunity to learn more about her research and to see part of the city in a little more depth.** The Capitoline Hill was the seat of successive city governments, most visibly transformed by Michaelangelo's design for the piazza there. It boasts impressive views over the forum ruins and the Capitoline Museum. We walked up as high as Santa Maria de Ara Coeli, a church perched on top of the hill where the Virgin Mary supposedly appeared to Augustus. The tour had us distracted by manhole covers, city trash cans, and passing trams, as we tuned in to the modern pervasiveness of civic branding. It was a really good tour, complete with handouts and a pause for cold water in the middle of it, sensible on a warm day.

Our first attempt to go to see the Basilica of Saint Peter's in Vatican City was - thoughtlessly - Wednesday morning. The Pope was busy greeting the pilgrims who'd traveled to be there that week. We heard him in German, Spanish, Hebrew, and Polish before we decided to try to see the impassable basilica the next day instead. Still, it was very satisfying to go to a foreign country and immediately see its leader. Instead, we wandered, from Castel Sant'Angelo and its enormous, c. twelve-foot diameter football, across the Tiber, through pedestrianized Rome to the Piazza Navona and on to the Pantheon, which is sublime even when full of footballers. Afterwards, we continued on, past the Venetian Republic's embassy, Trajan's Column, and the monument to Vittorio Emmanuelle II, to the Capitoline tour.

Our second attempt to see the basilica was more successful. We reached it by walking down along the Aurelian Wall, build up high on the Janiculum Hill, apparently, to protect the mills on its steep slopes. This time, only the 15-20 minute security line delayed our entrance. Thanks to the cunning of its design, the basilica looks far smaller than it is. It's enormous, but everything is in proportion, from the elegant Virtues stashed up above the arches to the papal tombs lining the chapels below. We spent the better part of two hours there, admiring and photographing its riches (especially its Virtues) before we were out of time and needed to begin the leisurely trip through lunch, back up the Janiculum Hill, back to collect our luggage, say farewell to our host, catch the bus which wends its way past the Colosseum, and back to the railway station. Contrary to what I'd been warned, the trains to Rome have gotten faster: the fast train, using Pendolino carriages, took us a mere four hours, with the computer screen in between carriages providing us with our GPS coordinates the whole way - speed, latitude and longitude, time.

* Thanks to a room-swap which generously gave us a self-contained apartment there for two nights. We had really good hosts!
** This is why I've left off her username from this post, in case she doesn't want her research associated with it publicly.
Tags: travelogue

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