Monday, February 22, 2016

Roman Holiday

EDIT: Found this piece in my drafts. It was written after my trip to Rome in April 2015 and intended to capture the details of a very satisfying break.


It surprises me sometimes to think of how long it took me to realise I enjoy travelling. Going to a new place is like beginning the first chapter in a new book. A good holiday feels like spring-cleaning for the soul. So when I realised I had time for a super-short trip to Rome I grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

Rome was on my list of the top European destinations to visit - for being so steeped in history both Catholic and pagan. Indeed someone once called it a 'city of echoes' and it is a truly apt description for there seemed to be something of historical significance in every side-street in the city.

My trip began with a couple of unexpected and breathtaking views from the plane - the first as we flew over the ice capped Alps looking a bit like a fairy-tale kingdom and the second was the view of the azure sea with tiny white sailboats as we prepared to land in Rome. Feeling energized by these sights, I landed at Fiumcino Airport and found my way to the Leonardo Express train which would take me into the heart of the city. The journey from airport to city takes about half an hour and I was quite glad that my hotel was walking distance from Termini, the central train station.

By this time it was already late afternoon, but thanks to spring, I still had a few daylight hours left. Not to mention incredibly balmy weather. So I did some quick Googling, had a few words with the concierge and armed with a map set out for Santa Maria Maggiore, the closest place of interest. This basilica is the largest church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and is believed to have been built around the 5th century AD. When you see its grand facade and even more impressive and ornate interiors, the mind boggles to think of just how long it has been standing here. With glorious mosaic work and frescoes depicting scenes from the Bible, being inside the basilica felt like being inside a treasure chest. Since it was a Sunday, I was also able to attend evening mass and this completed for me a deeply spiritual experience.

Dusk had fallen and there was just about time to sample the local pizza before gearing up for the next day. A young Pakistani waiter spoke in Hindi to catch my attention and invite me into his restaurant, clearly excited to see someone from the sub-continent. As I sat in the open air pizzeria, I got chatting with a couple of Australian ladies who told me which sights I should see and how Florence should be a must visit on my next trip.

Dinner taken care of, a helpful Italian gent pointed me in the direction of the nearest shop selling gelato. While I enjoyed my dessert, I pondered over how travel also provided opportunities to connect with people from all over the world. A Swiss couple came into the gelato shop and after asking my opinion, selected the same flavour of gelato. We exchanged a few smiles and some comments and I thought of how freeing the whole experience was. This is one of the things I like about living in London as well - the possibility of exchanging a few words and a laugh with strangers without any ulterior motives.

The next day began with some incredible cappucino that charged me up for a long day of sightseeing.

I got tickets for the City Sightseeing Hop on Hop off buses and got plenty of helpful suggestions from the Bangladeshi promoters who started talking to me in Bengali. I had tickets for the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel and was advised by the hostess on the bus to get off directly at the Vatican stop as queues tended to be long there. So I got an eyeful and camera-ful of the Colosseum, Piazzas, Circo Massimo etc.

It was a bright, sunny day and St. Peter's Basilica was teeming with people by the time I reached there.

Feeling a bit overwhelmed, I tried to figure out where the entrance was and where all the serpentine queues were leading. I was joined in this quest by a friendly German couple who told me they were on the same hunt. After quite a walk (by my standards), we figured out where we needed to go. On the way a Bangladeshi tour promoter convinced me that I needed a guide to take me through the labyrinthine museums and more importantly, that the guide would be able to drop me off near the Basilica which meant I could see that too without queuing and overall walk less! The guide was an Italian lady who took a group of us tourists through the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel dropping nuggets of history along the way. Given how crowded both these places were, I was quite happy with my decision to hire her.

The Vatican Museums contain an immense collection of art collected by the Popes down the ages. There is just so much to see and marvel at that it soon became clear that one could not hope to do justice to it within a few hours. We went through room after room of ancient sculptures, artefacts and gorgeous paintings. There was for instance the Gallery of Maps hung with elaborate maps of Italy and its surrounding regions drawn during the 16th century. And these maps, created at a time which we would consider as having severe technological limitations, were all remarkably accurate! The Gallery of Tapestries is full of huge wall hangings made of wool and silk which depict religious stories. One interesting anecdote the guide told us was that the vivid red colour used in the tapestries apparently came from crushed ladybugs, so creating a tapestry was obviously a very time consuming exercise as enough ladybugs needed to be accumulated!

The Sistine Chapel was gorgeous. And smaller than I thought it would be - but that could just be because of how crowded it was. I was also surprised to find myself a bit underwhelmed by Michaelangelo's ubiquitous depiction of the Creation of Adam. I actually found The Last Judgement more interesting with its layered references to Dante's Inferno. No photography allowed here by the way.

St. Peter's Basilica was the last stop on the day's sojourn. It was magnificent example of Renaissance architecture and every bit as majestic as I had expected. It was a bit like Santa Maria Maggiore but bigger. The basilica is believed to be the burial site of St. Peter, one of the Apostles of Jesus Christ and his tomb is supposed to be directly below the high altar. Besides the many sculptures and tombs of Popes, the basilica also contains Michaelangelo's Pieta. Ralph Emerson called St. Peter's and "ornament of the world" and this couldn't be more true. One steps out of the basilica into St. Peter's square which is encircled partially by two arcs of beautiful colonnades to indicate the welcoming arms of the church.

Here I took a breather with a delicious pistachio gelato and watched the crowds go by in the square. I saw the Swiss guard in their colourful vestments too. After some souvenir shopping, it was time to head back to my hotel.

The next day, with Google Maps as my trusty companion, I visited the Pantheon - a temple built around 126 AD! The fact that it was built so many eons ago, the thought of how much those stone walls had seen, of the ever-changing multitudes who must have passed through its portico, really filled me with awe. The Pantheon is also one of the structures to have had an enormous impact on architecture with its distinctive portico with Corinthian columns and the huge rotunda within with light streaming in from an opening in the dome. Interestingly, despite its huge historical relevance, the Pantheon is not sectioned away. A loud and lively Piazza with tourists, food sellers and musicians lies in front of this gray building. I stood there among the milling crowds, helping a couple take photographs, contemplating another gelato, soaking in the sunshine and listening to the strains of The Godfather theme song being payed on a harmonica. It was a beautiful moment.

No visit to Rome could be complete without a trip to the Trevi Fountain - one of the most famous fountains in the world. Unfortunately when I went, it was being renovated. However a small pool of water was kept to one side should someone want to throw in a coin and make a wish. This girl sure did.

Among the many beautiful, open piazzas I walked across, the Piazza Navona was notable - a beautiful square with the gorgeously sculpted Fountain of Four Rivers. Rows of artists lined the sides of the square adding colour to the proceedings. Tourists were being enticed into the cool shade of the nearby bistros. And hawkers (all from the Indian sub-continent) were determined to sell one a selfie-stick. Rome was nothing if not lively.

After a leisurely lunch of gnochhi, I ambled down the sunny streets thinking of how my Roman holiday had exceeded my expectations in the best possible way. I was feeling relaxed, content, and energized - and fortunate to have set foot in a place that carries some of the key roots of civilization and spirituality.

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