KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
They say that Rome wasn’t built in a day. We were sure that it would take some time for us to see the main sights, so we allowed a week from the time we arrived, till the time we flew to Istanbul. One again, the Eurostar was our mode of transport, we were becoming used to the comfort of departing from a convenient location in the center of a city, not having to arrive more than fifteen minutes before departure and not having to wait in long queues to pass through security checks. What a great way to travel. I was able to spend some time working on my journal because the seats have electric outlets to keep computers charged.
We arrived at the large Termini Station in the heart of Rome and set off to look for a hotel nearby. There are dozens of hotels, some good and some not so good, it’s useful to have a guidebook to suggest which ones to investigate. We tried a couple mentioned in the Lonely Planet, but found them full, so we headed to one we had looked at on the internet. It wasn’t wonderful, but it was family-run and we liked the low-key atmosphere. The room had been recently renovated and it was fine, but the lobby left much to be desired.
It seemed strange that there were so many hotels in the same six story building, but later I read that many families have converted their apartments to guesthouses, and over time, as other apartments are vacated, they purchase them and convert them to addition rooms for their hotels. When the apartments do not adjoin their existing rooms, they simply start another hotel using another name, and manage them both from one location. It seems reasonable to me, and in a way, it provides affordable accommodation to travellers whether they come from abroad or from other parts of Italy.
We settled into our room and since the weather was nice, we ate dinner at an outdoor restaurant down the street and then went for a long walk to see the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain. I thought that it would be a good idea to explore Rome a little in the evening and to see these two famous places lit up at night. In the end, it probably wasn’t a good idea. It meant that our introduction to the city was at the end of a long day of tourists visiting these two places and leaving all their litter behind. I found it hard to enjoy walking on the streets because all the shops were closing and putting their bags of trash out onto the sidewalks for pickup during the night. It gave the impression of Rome being a dark, dirty, noisy city; an impression that took several days to be overcome before I could truly say I liked being in Rome.
The weather turned during our first night in Rome, and we awoke to cloudy skies and drizzle. When I opened the curtains to look out onto the street, I was disappointed to see the wet streets and everyone scurrying around in dark clothing with umbrellas to keep them dry. We had attempted to escape the cold weather in Venice by travelling further south to Rome, and it appeared that we had dragged the clouds along with us on the Eurostar. The only saving grace was that a street market was being set up below our window and it was interesting to watch the hustle and bustle as the vendors set up their tents and arranged their displays.
We decided to take advantage of the poor weather and relax in our hotel room. This gave me a chance to catch up writing my journal and responding to emails from friends and family. When we arranged to use the wireless at the hotel, we were disappointed to find that it wouldn’t work in our room, that we had to go down to the breakfast room to get connected properly. Then it turned out that even that didn’t work, I had to work at a small table set up beside the reception desk, otherwise the connection was so weak, that I had to wait too long to move from one website to another or to upload photos. We began to seriously think about changing hotels.
The next morning, we were delighted to see blue skies when we peeked out the window and at breakfast, we started chatting with the young man who manages the food service at the hotel. He spoke very good English and gave us loads of advice about getting around Rome and which sights to see, in which order. We decided we had had enough of hanging around the hotel and didn’t fancy spending the morning looking for another place to stay, it was time to see the Vatican, we could manage another night before moving.
We read that Rome is a surprisingly compact city, at least in terms of the things tourists want to see, and that it is easy to walk from one place to another. For this reason, we decided to walk across the city from our hotel to the Tiber, and then cross over to see the Vatican. It was a long walk for sure, but we got the ‘lay of the land’ so to speak and saw some beautiful monuments and ruins along the way. We were surprised at how low the water level was on the Tiber, but then again, Rome had always relied on aqueducts to bring water to the city, even 2,000 years ago. It’s a short walk from the banks of the river to the splendour of St. Peter’s Basilica and we were glad that we approached it on foot, rather than arriving by metro and coming up out of the station right at the edge of St. Peter’s Square.
We had read about the Vatican Museum where the Catholic world’s greatest treasures are stored, so we went directly there to view them and to marvel at the Sistine Chapel. To our surprise, the museum closes relatively early, at 4pm, and we knew we would not have enough time to see it thoroughly; we would come back another day. Instead, we returned to the Basilica and joined the line to view the interior and to climb into the Dome for a bird’s eye view of the smallest sovereign nation in the world. There weren’t too many visitors that afternoon, and most of the tour groups had already gone. There isn’t enough time for people in tours to climb to the dome, so that lined moved especially quickly and before we knew it, we were starting up the 515 stairs to the top of the dome.
I was surprised that there was an admission charge to make the climb and even more surprised that it was higher for those who wanted to use the elevator for part of the ascent. Signs warned us that the elevator only eliminated about 220 of the stairs and they warned that people with vertigo should reconsider making the climb. Now I’m pretty bad with heights, but I wanted to make the climb; I had managed well at the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. In the end, the climb was well worth the effort; the views of Vatican City and Rome beyond were stunning. When we were on solid ground once again, we went inside St. Peter’s Basilica and enjoyed the view looking up into the dome almost as much as we did looking down. The highlight for me was Michelangelo’s Pieta.
Over the course of the next several days, we ate well and walked it off by covering what seemed to be every street between the Seven Hills of Rome. One evening we even ventured out at night to attend a concert of the opera ‘La Traviata’ performed in a small Protestant church, called St. James’ Within The Walls. The next day we learned that the Vatican museums open for free to the public on the last Sunday of the month, and since we were there for that one Sunday in October, we chose to go that day.
We knew the crowds would be fierce, so we got up early and set off on the metro instead of walking the four kilometers. There were very few people out and about that morning, and we thought it was because it was a Sunday. Little did we know that Europe went off daylight saving time that morning (ahead of North America) and that, not only were we out well before the ‘crack of noon’, we were really, really early birds.
We were in the museum a little more than an hour of joining the line, pretty amazing, and we purchased audio guides for the visit. The museums were very large and although there were huge numbers of people visiting that day, we never felt overwhelmed until the end when we approached the Sistine Chapel. Up to that point, we were allowed to take photographs without a flash, but were told to put our cameras away when we entered the Chapel. I was a little disappointed because I hadn’t taken many photos to that point, I thought I would just ‘focus’ on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel when we finally got there. In the end, it was probably just as well, the ceiling is very high and our time there was better spent studying the amazing artistry of Michelangelo, than framing photos to be enjoyed later.
Not long after we entered the Chapel, we were surprised to hear a bell ring, the museums were closing for the day and it was just short of 2pm. I had assumed that the Sunday opening hours were the same as during the week, but I had assumed wrong. If we didn’t have the advantage of the time change, there is a good chance that the doors to the museum would have closed before we had a chance to make our way to the finest treasure there, the Sistine Chapel. Someone, perhaps Michelangelo himself, was watching out for us that day. Some might say, the Lord himself.
You may have seen from the captions on my photographs; that Anil and I are big fans of Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, and that one of our favorite movies is ‘Roman Holiday’. We made sure that we visited many of the historic sites featured in the film; this ended up being more important to us than visiting the interior of the Colosseum and the Roman Forums. It’s great that our likes and dislikes are so in tune with each other, otherwise we would probably have some friction when it comes to seeing all the things in a city like Rome. We find we enjoy the living, breathing aspects of a city, a country and a people, rather than the ruins of past empires. However, there was one place I really wanted to visit, and that Anil really didn’t care to see, and that was the Catacombs.
This past summer we were visiting a friend of my parents in Victoria, a woman who knows me from when I was a very young child living with my parents in Ontario, before my father died. We talk every year, but it had been some time since we’d seen each other. She was in bed after suffering a fall and I was sitting beside her. She suddenly looked at me, and out of nowhere, asked me if I still love to visit cemeteries. I was shocked to hear her ask me that, especially since I had stumbled upon some old gravestones that afternoon in a churchyard in Victoria and had stopped to photograph them. I told her yes, I did, and asked her why she would think to ask me such a question. She said when I was very little, I loved to visit cemeteries and I guess I still so.
When I looked for information about the Catacombs in my guidebook, I was surprised to learn that they are outside of Rome itself; the largest are located along the Appian Way (Appia Antica). There are over 60 of these underground tunnels in the area, but only five are open to the public. We decided to journey out of the city to see the Appian Way, the most important and strategic of the ‘All roads lead to Rome’ highways for the past 2300 years. A combination of metro and bus ride took us out into the countryside south of Rome; it was refreshingly green after the pavements of the city. There aren’t a lot of trees in Rome, and even less grass. This may or may not relate to issues with water over the centuries.
It was lovely to walk along the ancient road, though walking on the huge stones was surprisingly difficult. There are ruins of tombs on either side of the road, monuments to the Roman nobility, places where their ashes were interred outside of the city. We came to the Catacombs of San Sebastino and joined in with an English speaking tour about to depart into the Christian tombs under the Basilica there. There was little time for Anil to think about it, he agreed to join me. We weren’t allowed to take photographs underground. It’s a pity because the catacombs are fascinating, more amazing than I ever thought possible. I was glad that we had already visited the Chu Chi Tunnels outside of Saigon, because we were warned the catacombs can be a little claustrophobic, but I found them spacious compared to those in Vietnam.
We learned a great deal from our English-speaking Sri Lankan guide. The early Christians did not want to continue to follow the cremation practices of the Romans once their Christ had risen from the dead; they wished to be buried in hopes of being resurrected themselves one day. The land along the roads leading out of Rome was the most accessible, but the Romans had claimed it for their own tombs, so the Christians decided to go underground. Not necessarily to escape the attention of the Romans, because there is now evidence that the Romans were aware of the underground tombs. The catacombs that we visited were dug over a period of three hundred years and it is estimated that more than 100,000 people were buried at this site alone.
Our flight to Istanbul didn’t depart until the evening so after checking out of our hotel and leaving our luggage for a few hours with the staff there, we made one last trip to the Trevi Fountain. I had been so disappointed with it our first night in Rome, I hoped that a visit on a sunny afternoon would leave me with a much better memory of this famous Roman monument. I am so glad we made the effort. The crowds were in a festive mood, the water was a brilliant shade of blue, and there wasn’t much litter to speak of. Everyone seemed to be enjoying huge cones of gelato.
Anil was only too willing to throw a coin in the fountain, over his shoulder as tradition dictates. Legend says if you throw a coin in the fountain, you will come back to Rome. Anil first visited this fountain in 1968 during a brief stopover on his way to Canada for the first time. He threw a coin in the fountain and now here he is, back in Rome without any advance plan. Maybe it was that wish made long ago that steered us here. Maybe this wish made today will bring us back again.