Roman Holiday

After our teary departure from Il Borghetto, we drove back to Florence to catch the Italo train to Roma. To be honest, Rome was kind of an after thought in our plans. Having visited in 2005, it wasn’t high on our list of places to get to as we were focusing on new-for-us destinations. However, we realized that was pretty selfish since our kids have never been to Rome and well, its freaking ROME!!!

Spanish Steps and the hordes. Those people sitting won’t last long before the Carbinieri send them packing.

If Florence is an outdoor museum then I guess Rome is a living archaeological site. Every where you look is a remnant of Ancient Roman civilization with the modern city just built on top of it. Layers of architecture all compounded together.

It was clear that the recent lifting of all Covid restrictions here in Italy has taken the shackles off of this city. It was alive and very busy! Masses gathered on the Spanish Steps with the Carbinieri ready to shoo off anyone who dared to take a seat. Line-ups out the door at the gelato shops. Dinner reservations impossible to get. Pantheon tickets oversold for the day.

Since Rome was an after thought, we only had two full days so we became super travellers and decided to cram in as much as we possibly could.

Day one we chose a tour that seemed a little unconventional with a walking tour of the Trastevere neighbourhood. Across the Tiber from the historical centre, Trastevere is a gentrifying area of cool restaurants and unique shops. Our guide was a laugh and very knowledgable. An archaeologist, she showed us some very cool things we would never have noticed on our own.

The tour started at the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere. One of the oldest churches in Rome, she pointed out the many columns throughout the church were not uniform. They had in fact been salvaged from other Roman sites around the city to build this church.

Took one for the team. A quick macchiato at the café bar so that everyone could take a quick pee in Trastevere

From there she took us to San Francesco di Ripa to see the incredible Bernini carved statue of Blessed Ludovica Albertoni. This would be the first time we crashed a First Communion on our trip to Italy. We arrived at the Church to see many well dressed folks out on its steps. We thought that perhaps there was a wedding taking place. In fact it was a class of eight year olds all dressed in white; the girls like little brides and the boys like little monks. Fortunately mass was just ending, so we were able to sneak in the side not before being noticed by the monks playing the recessional hymn. If looks could kill then those monks would be headed straight for hell! The recovering Catholics in our group were already feeling guilty for not genuflecting or packing our rosaries! Luckily, the draw of Bernini’s marble tucked into the chapel next to the sacristy door was too great so we ignored all ingrained childhood guilt and snuck our way to the chapel gate.

Bernini was racy! Its easy to see why this statue was so controversial. Ludovica in ecstasy on her deathbed at the sight of God was more akin to a scene from Bridgerton! This chapel should have an 18+ rating!!! Truthfully, it was an easy trade-off to face the guilty feelings to see this epic masterpiece. Bernini captures light from the single window making the statue seem translucent and aglow. Hard to believe its solid marble and not delicate fabric flowing down her bodice. Stunning.

Bernini’s Ludovica Albertoni

In fact, this is one of my favourite things about Rome. You can happen upon a small humble church and find a masterpiece inside. You can view it without the throngs of tourists clamouring for selfies. We just had to fend of the eight year old First Communion kids and the dirty looks of two Monks.

Following another few blocks, a church and some fun Trastevere anecdotes, our guide dropped us at Da Teo for our lunch. Seated at the back of the restaurant, we loved seeing the many locals come in for their Saturday lunch along with their kids and their dogs (yes, inside the restaurant). We ate many varieties of Roman artichoke dishes. On our way out we noticed a willow-y diner in a hat and sunglasses tucked into the corner. She caught my eye since she was wearing a hat and sunglasses inside. It was none other than Jane Fonda. Of course there is no photo evidence because we’re Canadian. But quite a testament to this humble neighbourhood restaurant that she would shine her star on them.

That evening we decided to head out to see the Trevi Fountain after dark. It is quite magical lit up a night. We also hoped it would be a little less busy. Yeah, it wasn’t less busy. It was the exact opposite. But the brave Monsieur shepherded our kids down to the fountain’s edge so they could each toss a coin over their shoulder to guarantee a return trip to Rome some day down the road.

The following morning after a big breakfast, we left GG and Pops to enjoy the splendours of our hotel and spa. We headed out on the town for a day of total power sightseeing. Setting out on foot we headed straight to the Pantheon (Truth bomb: we may have stopped for a touch of shopping and a cappuccino along the way, much to Monsieur’s chagrin).

The Pantheon and more hordes of tourists

The Pantheon is one of the best preserved Ancient Roman structures. It was built as a temple to all of the Roman gods in around 126 AD. It was eventually turned into a Catholic Church and is now a Museum. A Museum with a big line-up of people who booked their visit in advance and had reservations. Wah wah…. guess who didn’t pre-book? If you guessed us, you win! Seventeen years ago, I remember walking straight into the Rotunda through the massive doors. In 2022, the year of our Covid wave 47, nope.

Ok, time to think fast. Mama Tour Guide, always with a backup plan in her pocket remembered a very cool church around the corner with a statue of Hadrian’s elephant out front and Michaelangelo inside. With the assistance of Google Maps, I realized it was just a few steps away. Off we went and found the statue but the Elephant was much smaller and less impressive than I remembered. And the entrance to the church was locked as tourists were now forced to walk around the back to gain entry. We trudged onward as the mercury climbed and never found the alleyway that contained the elusive back door. Ok, now everyone is a little pissy and there are no gelato shops in sight to try and tame the beast of impatience. I checked my handy Google Maps again and luckily we were just 10 minutes on foot now to the Roman Forum. I knew that they didn’t have a front door that locked! So off we went.

Discovered while on foot Piè di Marmo

The Roman Forum is vast and epic. We started at Trajan’s Column and walked our way along the Via dei Fori Imperiali towards the Coliseum with the Roman ruins stretching as far as the eye can see on either side of the wide boulevard. We wished we had a guide to give us all the local tidbits and gossip about what we were looking at. We were grateful however to run into one of the many hawkers selling bottles of frozen water. By now it was a sweltering 35 degrees celsius and we were starting to wilt. But we forged ahead with the epic Coliseum as our planned destination.

The Via dei Fori Imperiali is LOOOOONG, has little shade and is entirely surrounded by ruins. Our only option was to forge ahead. In the heat. We finally made it to the Coliseum and made the decision to high tail it out of the pedestrian only area and get an Uber tout de suite.

Luckily a lovely air conditioned Uber arrived right away and agreed to take us to St. Peter’s Square. The driver very kindly took us across Ponte Vittoria Emanuele II over the Tiber so we could see Ponte Saint Angelo and Castel Saint Angelo from the comfort of air conditioning – check and check.

At the Vatican, we broke our number one food rule and picked the first restaurant we could find that said Pizzeria. We were grateful for the shade, cold drinks and something to eat. And as if on cue, as soon as the pizzas hit the table, the Little’s nose erupted like Vesuvius. What an opportune moment for a nosebleed. Grabbing every napkin in sight we managed to stop the bleeding with little gore. In fact it took the server two or three passes bringing us the pizzas to even notice that we were in full nose pinch mode. Once recovered, we enjoyed a solid 3 star pizza, a glass of lukewarm sugar water for the Little (that the Mama waitress insisted was necessary for their recovery) and made our way to St. Peter’s Square.

St. Peter’s Square, Basilica and the Vatican itself are quite massive. I suppose built this way to honour God’s majesty and inspire awe in the followers and ”should-be” followers. All I know is that its really big to cross in the searing heat to get in line to enter. As with all major tourist attractions in Europe, the first stop is a security screening but unlike the others, the second stop is a wardrobe check. Anyone showing too much skin is sent packing. Believer, heretic, whoever! Cover it up or no St. Peter’s for you! Luckily we passed muster and were admitted.

For some reason, on this hot and sunny Sunday afternoon in a Rome teeming with tourists, St. Peter’s was relatively empty. We were able to take our time and really get a good look at Michaelangelo’s Pieta (last time we couldn’t even get close) and Bernini’s St. Peter’s Altar and the epic Bronze Baldachin (canopy). It was as we got close to the Altar that we realized that Mass was being said in the Apse beneath the Chair of St. Peter and the ethereal stained glass window depicting the Holy Spirit and capturing the late afternoon light just so. Impressive use of the Baroque tradition to use natural light effectively to generate true theatre in the space (yes, I paid attention to the guide!).

St. Peter’s is an incredible museum, housing some of the most spectacular works of art in existence. As we made our way around to the other side of the Basilica we found the Vatican Treasury Museum. Now I started feeling creepy instead of awe-struck. We decided then that we were done ooohing and aaahing at the treasures of the Catholic Church. Their vows of poverty and charity are nothing but completely hollow when you see this obvious display of ornate wealth. Seeing this icon of colonial conquest in the name of ministry, through the lens of the terror and horrors inflicted on First Nations, Métis and Inuit folx at the hands of the Church in Canada (and in so many other places) made me feel sick. There is no excuse for this Church to not offer financial reconciliation as these communities work towards recovery. I realize that this is a heavy statement in my usually lighthearted blog. I don’t want to trivialize the Genocide that’s taken place in Canada and fully acknowledge that I am learning and continuing to learn that we need to do so much more to right this wrong of history and help our First Nations, Métis and Inuit citizens recover from the generations of atrocities inflicted upon them.

Later that evening, after a fresh shower and a tiny lay down to recover from the heat we headed out to dinner. As it was our last night in Rome, we wanted to show the kids Piazza Navona and its incredible 400 year old Fountain of the Four Rivers, again by Bernini. The fountain has four allegories each representing the 4 major rivers known at that time; The Ganges, The Nile, The Rio de la Plata and The Danube.

Not wanting to break our “don’t eat next to tourist attraction” rule twice in one day, we found a spot just a couple of blocks off the square. Ponte e Parrione came with a 4.6 rating. A tiny hole in the wall, we weren’t so sure when we arrived. The waiter sat us in a table next to the espresso machine. All sorts of hustle and bustle ensued and we worried that we may have made a mistake. But then before long, plates of pasta, pizza, tagliata and veal milanese hit the table and our crowd was very satisfied. Deciding to forego the tiramisu so we could track down some fresh gelato, the server returned with a plate of biscotti and bottle of housemade limoncello on the house. If you recall, housemade limoncello is STRONG. Already plied with plenty of great wine, we couldn’t possibly handle a digestivo. Before I knew it I was channeling Cher in Moonstruck, with all apologies and mi dispiaces and arm waving and hands folded in prayer. ”Grazie mille Signore!” It’s true! In Italy, you can’t help but talk with your hands.

A little while later, we were safely tucked into bed in our gratefully air conditioned hotel room. Reeling from days filled with adventure, history, learning and most of all great Italian hospitality. Rome is epic. Dripping with history. We were ready for some quieter days coming up.

More Bernini at Piazza Navona – The Fountain of the Four Rivers

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