June 25, 2012

When In Rome

At first we were wondering what sort of indulgences spawned the phrase, “When in Rome…” It probably means whatever you want it to mean. For us, it has meant pizza for lunch and dinner and gelato every day.

Rome is large, bustling and tiring. For travelers like us – who are wide-eyed and willing to see any random of site of interest – this city is a bit of an overload. Not even two blocks out of the train station and we had already stumbled upon some ruins. There are so many ruins sprinkled around the city that there’s always something else to see “just around the next corner”. It’s also been 97 degrees outside. A couple of times we’ve admitted to ourselves that we needed to stop, and we made ourselves go home to our air conditioner.

I would also say that this is the very first city we’ve passed through that felt like a blur. We’re used to a city having one major plaza as a point of reference with smaller plazas sprinkled around. Rome has endless piazzas and they all look the same…Egyptian obelisk or fanciful fountain. Even after three days, I never did quite get my bearings.

At night we walked from piazza to piazza enjoying famous sites like the Spanish Steps and the Travoli Fountain.

During the day we split our time between Ancient Rome and the Vatican. We were most excited to see the ancient Roman ruins like the Coliseum, Forum and Pantheon.

Those were all great, but what I appreciated most about Rome was all of the knowledge that we took away. Here are my top-five Ancient Roman fun facts that we learned (in extreme layman’s terms): 

1.  Ancient Rome existed from 500 BC to 500 AD. It grew for 500 years, peaked for 200 years and fell for 300 years.

2. Julius Caesar was a great leader who tried to bridge the gap between a republic and an empire, and he was murdered for it by his peers. His adopted son, Augustus, became the first emperor. This is also the same guy who called for the census in the story of Jesus’ birth. Augustus wanted a good name to identify himself and future emperors, so he chose his dad’s – Caesar. That’s how he got the name Caesar Augustus. And contrary to what I imagined in my head, the Coliseum didn’t even exist in Augustus’ day.

3. We think of Roman buildings as being white marble. Their buildings were actually red brick skeletons, filled with concrete and then covered over with marble sheets. Also, the buildings weren't all white. They were painted in bright colors like red, blue, green and yellow.

4. After Rome fell, Italy essentially went into a dark period until the Renaissance 1,000 years later. The Renaissance men picked up right where the ancient Romans left off…placing Greek-inspired statues and stately buildings all around town. So not everything you see around Rome is necessarily “ancient”.

5. The country of Italy as we know it didn’t even exist until 1870. That’s not very long ago!

These are things that we probably should have already known, but they either got lost along the way or we now have more perspective to appreciate them. Our mental timeline of how the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Spanish and Incas fit together keeps getting more and more complete.

I know that I would never want to be the owner of a construction company in Rome. Every time you’d break ground, you would probably dig up some ancient site and your plans would go right out the window. The ancient ruins and the modern city live side-by-side. 

We also had a nice day across the river in Vatican City – its own country with its own Euro coin. We happened to be in town on the 4th Sunday of the month when the Vatican Museum was free. The crowds were massive…with lines circling the building an hour before it even opened. We could not believe how many nuns were waiting in line under the hot sun. They have given their entire lives to the church…shouldn’t they at least get to skip to the front of the line?

The Vatican Museum has lots of paintings, frescoes and tapestries collected by the church. We didn't know enough to appreciate one from the other, so we followed this group of nuns around. We figured if they stopped at a painting, we probably should too.

An unlikely surprise at the Vatican Museum was the large Egyptian collection of tombs, mummies, amulets and carvings. It pretty much blew our minds when we were looking at pottery that was from 8,500 B.C. That is just crazy to think about. A trip to Cairo would be pretty fun, I imagine.

The highlight of the Vatican Museum was, of course, the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo’s ceiling and altar frescos. At first there’s so much to look at your brain can’t take it all in, but with the help of a guide, the scenes of God’s creation of the world became easily decipherable. By the end, our necks hurt so badly from craning upwards. The Sistine Chapel was an unexpected physical challenge.

This is a great time to go see the Sistine Chapel because it was just restored. No new paint was added, but all of the grime was cleaned off and you can now see the colors as bright at Michelangelo intended them. They did leave one little section with the old filth so that you can compare the amazing difference.

As we were popping out of the Sistine Chapel, we happened to look down at our watches and saw that it was 11:58. The Pope appears at 12:00. We scurried out into the mass of people gathered at St. Peter’s Square and saw Pope Benedict XVI appear from his study window and address the crowd. That was a cool unexpected surprise.

Here are my top-two Catholic fun facts that we learned. Forgive me if these are already extremely obvious to you. And hopefully I'm not getting it wrong and offending anyone. We’re not Catholic, so we’re still trying to learn this stuff.

1. Jesus gave the keys of the church to his disciple Peter, who became the very first Pope. Today’s Pope is simply in that lineage…he’s got the keys.

2. The purpose of those virgin statues we’ve been seeing all around South America and Europe? You tell something to the Virgin, she tells Mary, Mary tells Jesus, and Jesus tells God.

We capped off our time at the Vatican inside the humongous St. Peter’s Basilica – I still maintain that Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is better. Then we climbed 554 steps to the top of St. Peter’s Dome to get some views of Rome’s (somewhat unimpressive) skyline.

I can’t fault Rome for this. If my city had these kinds of ruins, I wouldn’t build anything new either.

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