March Travels Part 2: Rome

Welcome, to the second and final late piece on my stint of March travelling with my parents. If you haven’t read the first check it out here, and then come back to this one. Or, if you are just so rebellious, carry on and let your hardened rebel soul influence me and my complacent peers.

When I end up in places with extraordinary historical significance of the narrative I’ve been given, destinations like Rome and London – Euroentric, I know – I often can’t help but think about the history of Grand Tours, and those who have gone on them and what they may or may not have learned. For the unaware, a Grand Tour was the 17th – 18th-century practice by which young members of European nobility would travel their continent’s most influential and historic sites as a right of passage. The trip often took many months or even a couple years to complete and usually focused heavily on the classical world (my source for all of this is my own accumulated knowledge from school and the Wikipedia article). Just as those young people and those who supported them did, I believe that travel is important, especially for learning and development, and this is a popular opinion though, not, I think, an unproblematic one. In the romantic age of Grand Tours, as today, travel is expensive and as such, undemocratic. I have the means to travel like this, as young men of the European nobility and gentry did, because of circumstance, where I happened to have been born and who my parents happened to be. And though more affordable travel can now be had, and is now being had by many, myself and my peers included, travel is still inaccessible to many – probably most. Who has the time for even modest outings? I try to keep all of this conflict in mind.

 

Where I last left off, we were enjoying our stay in the surprisingly pleasant Stockholm Skavsta Airport hotel. On the following morning, we caught a flight down to the Rome Ciampino Airport, marking my parents’ first ‘affordable’ European flight. When we got out into the warm air, a smile crept its way across my face as where we were failed to set in. Hailing a taxi, we were driven into the city, stunned at glimpses of entrances to catacombs, pieces of aqueducts, and an urban geography we were entirely unfamiliar with. The hotel we stayed in, which I won’t name for myriad reasons but if you so desire it would not be hard to find, was utterly spectacular. It was a short walk from the restaurant and art strewn area, Trastevere, and was a restored and renovated 17th-Century convent. My parents and I spent a good bit of the first evening, and some of the ensuing ones, sneaking around and discovering the confusing layout of the historic building. Including, the passageway down to a foreboding basement which was gated off and looked like steps into Hell, as well as elevators which lead perplexingly to select floors, making others accessible only by stair or perhaps, not at all. ” . This is from the (spoiler) Non-Catholic Cemetery.

We spent that first afternoon and evening familiarizing ourselves with our little corner of Rome and seeing some of the sites. After pizza, we moved further into the city making our way first, to the Piazza Navona where we stumbled upon an awe commanding school choir performance in one of the old churches. In the plaza, under the pretext of getting some gelato, actually, in search of a washroom, we ended up enjoying our first delicious gelato. Amazingly, I had given little thought, due to my preoccupations, to Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi which I was more able to appreciate with much-relieved blatter. That being said, I have little grounds on which to really appreciate such works, the grand fountains and statues of Rome, but thankfully, they speak for themselves.

Next, as the late afternoon sun was beginning to fade and the cool evening taking its place, we decided we were going to see the Pantheon. Intellectually, we were well prepared for this, an ancient structure, a centrepiece of Ancient Rome, one which I had seen modelled and photographed many, many times. But as we learned, those narrow streets, opening on to unexpected cavernous squares and plazas and the remnants of thousands of years of human history, Rome can surprise you with things you think you already know. We entered, stage left, and approached mouth agape. The sheer scale, and imposing nature of what I would consider an anachronism in my own life but which fits perfectly in the strange out-of-time world of Rome, rendered us speechless and then conjured only expletives. By a stroke of pure luck, likely due to the time we arrived at, the Pantheon wasn’t terribly busy, and we were able to get in quickly and easily. Walking past the massive columns and into the primary structure where we are nearly transported back in time. We read many of the information placards and observed each stunning section, cranking our necks up again and again to get glimpse after glimpse of the stunning ceiling and hole in the sky. So many must have done the same. From the Pantheon we swiftly acquired a table at one of the surrounding establishments and had a beautiful glass of wine, speaking little, still staring at the ancient Roman centrepiece.

The following morning we got tickets to take one of those hop-on-hop-off bus tour thingys which I was tremendously skeptical of (similar to the Stockholm boat tour). Again, however, I was pleasantly surprised and entertained by both the ride/sightseeing and the audio guide which fed us information we may well never have received. It also gave us an excellent first-morning introduction to the city and helped us orient further exploration. One of the most useful bits included in this tour was giving names to and explaining the somewhat random smattering of ruins and sites throughout the city. 

 

The big event of the day, however, was to visit the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. Around midday, we got a tour taking us through the Colosseum. Here again, my neck was cranked, and head was swivelling shoulder to shoulder to take in as much of this towering, cultural artifact as I could. Much of Rome, but I think the Colosseum and Forum are the most prominent examples, is a sort of mental fill-in-the-blanks. Meandering around the massive ancient amphitheatre, you’re encouraged to imagine walls built high, thousands of people cheering, ancient nobility and everyone else from that society, gathered, usually to see blood. Imagining vicious battles of life and death. Sand stained red. Cheering crowds. And all of that, no more strange than taking in a hockey game or concert. Still, the Colosseum looks awful strange to me. The familiarity I have with it, through various textbooks and narratives I’ve read didn’t prepare me for this hulking stone husk. I imagine I am a fish, visiting bleached coral. We are the same as those who built this and participated in its activities, but yet, so far removed. 

From the Colosseum, we walked down to another tour, this time of the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill. Throughout the trip, we struggled with normalization. We wondered if at some point, ornate churches would lose their appeal or if ancient ruins would become a bore. I don’t think I ever experienced this, but it did make me consider normal. And what normal must be for the people of Rome, or those who visit often and commute through these fantastic sites. I try to step into the space in my mind with the processing power to imagine the lives of those Ancient Romans too, and their perspectives. To see the colours which have long been bleached away, to speak a language I would not recognize, to think in that language. I fail, but the act of trying is the important bit.

The next morning we got up early, had a quick breakfast and then, made our way out to Vatican City for a tour. It’s hard to know what to say about our time in that small city-state, a temporal anomaly, even in a city so out of time as Rome, antique and beautiful, yet infused with the strange sights of modernity, including massive monitors and airport-like teched-out security theatre. On top of the ornate rooms filled with depictions of ancient pagan gods, in the halls of the Catholic god, and wealth, so much wealth, stored at the epicentre of a religious denomination committed to the poor. In the Vatican, many, myself included, find themselves face-to-face with some of the world’s most impressive and perhaps, famous, if not altogether most beautiful and influential, works of art in Western history but is forced to awkwardly reconcile their often questionable acquisition and the veritable sea of hypocrisy on the bed of which they lay. Amazingly, however, this feeling ebbs and flows and so appreciators of beautiful things have moments of respite wherein they may enjoy the sheer awe imposed upon them by sculptures, paintings, architectural works, and tapestries. I feel very well in these moments, it’s not hard to imagine religious experiences coming from such places, and I think it would be fair to call my own, these moments of awe, religious, even if they are devoid of organization or belief in any kind of ‘higher power.’ Maybe this is an inappropriate use of the word since I am not religious. Maybe I ought to use ‘spiritual.’  Maybe language is malleable, and I am fine to use it as I please. I’ve found that contradiction is at the heart of all worthy things and stories.

Even after our time in the Vatican, seeing as we got up so early, we had a full day ahead of us. The next stop was the Spanish Steps, a staple of the Roman collection of historic sites. While the steps themselves, and the views they provide, as well as the Fontana della Barcaccia,  are all spectacular, the area offers an extra treat for English literature enthusiasts (*shouts “nerrrd!”*). As said demographic is likely to know, two extraordinary English Romantic poets lived for a time and died in Rome: John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Just adjacent to the foot of the Spanish Steps lies the small, discreet, entrance to the Keats–Shelley Memorial House containing “one of the world’s most extensive collections of memorabilia, letters, manuscripts, and paintings relating to Keats and Shelley, as well as Byron, Wordsworth, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Oscar Wilde, and others” (according to Wikipedia). I love the Romantic poets, partially because I really enjoy their works, and partly because they were all totally insane. As some of the Anglo world’s first modern celebrities, their antics are well documented right up, and until their various demises. The museum is the restored/replicated apartment which John Keats occupied until his death by tuberculosis in the care of his good friend and artist Joseph Severn. It includes some of the weird and wonderful artifacts that one would expect from such eccentric 19th Century poets including a lock or so of hair and many of the paintings which would show up in an Introduction to the Romantics powerpoint. We topped the day’s literary tourism off with a visit to Caffè Greco for some overly expensive coffee, in an excessively fancy but fascinating cafè frequented by those and many other European writers and notable artists since its establishment in 1720 (Wikipedia). To end our day we visited the extraordinarily busy Trevi Fountain where I embarrassingly missed coin toss number one and had to return later for a second go. When in Rome… do like all the other tourists?

The following day was our last full day in Rome, and we covered a fair bit of ground. We spent the first segment climbing to the top of the Aventine Hill for a breathtaking view of the city which had treated us so well for the past few days. After we took in the view, we walked back down and over to the final bit of literary tourism for the trip: The Non-Catholic Cemetery of Rome. The Cemetery is truly a peaceful site, features the only Egyptian-style pyramid in Italy, as well as the final resting places of Keats, Shelley, Severn, Antonio Gramsci and a host of other “notable” graves. We spent an hour or so wandering the Cemetery, relaxing and finding said notable graves. We then bussed across the city to the Pinciano area, where we enjoyed a long walk through massive parks to the Villa Borghese and its gardens. Unfortunately, we didn’t actually go into the museum, which looked terrific, so that is on the list for our next visit. Then we explored the Campo Marzio district and some of the shopping streets. In the evening we settled into a late dinner and our last night. 

On my parents final day in Europe, and my final day in Italy, we travelled out to Fiumicino, where we were to stay nearer to the airport we were to leave from. We spent a relaxing day walking around the beautiful little fishing town and enjoying the food.

I’ve written these last few paragraphs from Canada about five months later. My exchange is finished, and I am home. I am settling fine, searching for a job, and preparing for life back where I grew up, with more personal history, and less independence. More on that to come soon. Since I have returned, the pressure to write these too-long, itinerary-based travel blogs has been removed. With this in mind, my travel writing will continue. But the form will be drastically altered, as my purpose has. I shall be reflecting on my travels and my time abroad over this next year, as I explore my return. Thank you for being patient and reading along with me. I think these will get shorter now. 

Lots of love from Canada again,

Kostyn

Edited by my sharp and thorough mother. 


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