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Rome remains one of Europe’s most romantic cities, however, under the cobblestone beats a heart of something else entirely, for it may live on, but you will not.
When I decided to go to Rome, it wasn’t because I thought I needed it. That came later. It was because Rome is supposed to be the most romantic and wonderful of European cities, and I felt it was worth visiting at least once in my life. I can’t remember why I suddenly hankered to see Rome. I think there may have been a TV show involved. After Paris last year, Europe suddenly seemed magical to me and a need to explore this old world of rumbling ruins, this centre of history, felt an important thing to do. Of course, this drives TMOTH (the man of the house) nuts. Why did I wait until we moved from London to Australia, to decide the places I most wanted to visit were in Europe? I don’t know. I just did. Life is like that sometimes, all upside down and not quite as logical as we might want.
I tagged a weekend in Rome onto a longer trip to London to see my extended family. It was meant to be a break from mummydom – a trip with my sister, without kids in tow, to eat gelato and pizza and revel in the glorious history of this ancient city. In the end, it was a break from the reality of watching my father slowly dying before our very eyes, cancer devouring his body from the liver outwards, although not his soul.
We arrived in Rome to hawkers selling dodgy umbrellas and cobble-stone streets slick with rain. Nonetheless, we decided to walk to our hotel and soak up some of the atmosphere. Rome is glorious, even when it is raining. There is something about this small, compact city, with its maze of narrow streets, horn-blowing impatient drivers and beautifully dressed locals which warms the heart and makes you realise how wonderful it is to be alive and free, yet part of a continuous stream of human endeavour.
The city is steeped in history. There are impressive fountains everywhere and ancient columns hold up unremarkable buildings around many an unsuspected corner. You might, like I did, begin to think, “Can the Trevi Fountain really be so fantastic? After all, look at how many fountains Rome has got.” Until you come across it, almost accidentally, glistening in the wet evening. And its beauty and magnificence takes your breath away. And then, only then, do you truly begin to appreciate the grandeur of history here, the epic nature of what has been preserved through time, in this place that once ruled the world.
Of course there is a lot to do in Rome. You could spend a week just exploring museums. Another just to visit the churches. You’d need a month to go through every notable site. You could while away an entire weekend just shopping for leather shoes. Every guidebook I read warned that you couldn’t hope to see everything Rome had to offer in a weekend. That is, of course, true of anywhere. But a three day weekend is enough to enjoy some of the highlights. To soak up the history. To appreciate what it is to be in Rome.
I made a list of the places I most wanted to see; the Sistine Chapel, The Vatican Museums, Trevi Fountain, The Colosseum and Roman Forum (actually that wasn’t on my list but I am glad we included it), St Peter’s Basilica and the Pantheon; and of the things I wanted to do, which mostly consisted of eating Gelato and drinking chianti with every meal. I am pleased to say we managed to tick those all off (gelato at least three times) and have a nap on most days too.
Could I explain to you the wonders you see in The Vatican Museum? I wouldn’t know where to begin. The extensiveness of it all is overwhelming. The wealth that it represents (not only financially but also in terms of our history) and the insight it provides into our past is soul-numbingly vast. The Sistine Chapel, when you get to it, is almost (but not quite) an anti-climax, having seen so much incredible artwork on the way there. It is impossible to take it all in. The Sistine Chapel is quite spectacular, the talent of Michael Angelo unsurpassed, but my lasting memory will be that we were squashed into that blue room with thousands of other tourists, with guards repeatedly admonishing us to “shhhhhhh.”
St Peter’s is something else. Actually, in the end, the opulence of it all makes me feel ill. The riches used to provide long-dead Popes and saints and other heroes of the Catholic Church with legacies that must surely run close to idolatry, could feed the hungry and clothe the poor. I can’t help wondering where the money came from, over the past centuries, and how many poor peasants were mislead into believing they could buy their way to heaven or forgiveness. But then, I am just a cynic. For the view from the top of St Peter’s Basilica it was worth tackling the numerous steps, my heart-clenching claustrophobia and stomach-plummeting fear of heights. When we reach the top, the whole of Rome is laid before us, a tapestry of terracotta tiled roofs, interspersed with the off-white domes of multiple basilicas from the many churches in this city.
The Colosseum, as you would expect, is a remarkable feat of engineering with a history rich in bloodshed and suffering. I can’t help but feel the loss of so many lives on this great stage, wondering what that says about the human race, but I am in a melancholic place when I am in Rome, so perhaps that is all it is. There is so much history here, the air is thick with it. You can taste it. It seeps into your skin and coats you like dust.
By the time we get to the Forum, it is pouring with rain and my boots are leaking. We battle through rivers of muddy red water, unsuccessfully trying to avoid puddles. All around us lie the half restored ruins of ancient temples. We walk down the main road, and I can imagine life as it might once have been, a row of temples to a variety of Gods, each fronted with soaring columns, standing tall and proudly over its people.
To my mind, though, by far the most spectacular of all Rome’s sites is the Pantheon. We see it first from the outside, coming upon it unexpectedly on our way to Piazza Navona (for what turns out to be the most incredibly delicious and entertaining dinner. We are befriended by locals who ensure we get the “special menu”, and buy us Lemoncello at the end of the night).
The Pantheon is spectacular. Although it is not the original Pantheon, which burned down a couple of times, this building is nearly 2,000 years old, making it one of the only pieces of antiquity that has passed down through the ages largely unscathed – a feat of engineering and ingenuity that baffle even modern technicians. Outside, the building is fronted by a huge portico. With about 24 massive columns (shipped from Egypt – an amazing story in itself) towering overhead, it reduces us onlookers to minutiae. Each of the columns are over 1.5 metres in diameter and reach up 12 metres high. I feel as small as an ant, breathless with wonder, tiny in the face of such ancientness and significance.
Inside, I am even further awestruck. The shape of the building, the open roof which draws the eye towards the heavens, and the stark, beautiful simplicity of its interior, renders me to stillness. It is quiet inside, despite the crowds, as though we are all stunned into silence by the colossal nature of this building. There is a sense of the spiritual inside this round place (more than I felt at St Peters) and I feel almost renewed and refreshed having been privileged enough to visit it.
The best part of being in Rome though, was being there with my sister, eating fabulous food, playing Scrabble in the afternoons and laughing at silly jokes, strange people and ourselves. For me, importantly, I leave Rome understanding that we are all part of a long, endless stream of humanity. That all who live die, and it matters not how we finally meet our end, but what we do with that small space in between our first and last breath, and the story we tell with our lives.