The train from Manarola to Rome is long but surprisingly not confusing considering neither of us speak Italian. We exchange money at the station minus the $20 USD fee and hail a cab. According to the founding myth of the city by the Ancient Romans themselves, the long-held tradition of the origin of the name Roma is believed to have come from the city's founder and first king, Romulus. Romulus and Remus were twin brothers. They were abandoned by their parents as babies and put into a basket that was then placed into the River Tiber. The basket ran aground and the twins were discovered by a female wolf. The wolf mother nursed the babies for a short time before they were found by a shepherd. The shepherd then brought up the twins. When Romulus and Remus became adults, they decided to found a city where the wolf had found them. The brothers argued over where the site should be and Remus was killed by his brother. This left Romulus the sole founder of the new city and he gave his name to it – Rome supposedly founded in 753 BC. We check in to our hotel where an optimistic bagman takes us to our room at a sister property. We follow him rolling modern luggage down the most ancient cobblestone streets three and a half blocks through the bustling city center shopping district to Via del Corso. The hotel room is tiny but clean and the location is as central as it gets. Like staying in Time Square, we step outside of the old wood doors into crowds of shoppers on black Friday week and thousands of storefronts to choose from. Eventually we venture off the main road, finding places at our paces on side streets dotted with pizzerias and step into Enoteca Antica. It’s a lovely bar/restaurant decorated with dark wood and images of cherubs. Like much of Rome, it was like stepping into a timeless past. It also makes us reminisce about our old wine bar haunt from college; Bottega. A bellini paired with a cheese plate featuring various jams and honeys followed up by a heaping melty slice of lasagna and chianti sends us to bed quite infatuated with The Eternal City. Our first day in Rome begins with a breezy stroll through stunning historical baroque buildings down old sidewalks. The city pushes up against House of Augustus a.k.a. the real Cesar's Palace where we wander around viewing the Circus Maximus, an ancient Roman chariot-racing stadium and mass entertainment venue and the Colosseum, also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre. It was used for gladiatorial contests and public spectacles such as mock sea battles, animal hunts, executions, re-enactments of famous battles, and dramas based on Roman mythology. The building ceased to be used for entertainment in the early medieval era and was later reused for housing, workshops, quarters for a religious order, a fortress, a quarry, and a Christian shrine. It's what I imagine a post apocalyptic Staples Center would look like. With the crowds of tourists viewing the Colosseum also came the pick pockets. We watched a girl give a high five to one hand while the stranger's other hand grabbed a wallet out of her back pack swiftly before disappearing into the crowd.
Holding valuables in front pockets tightly we head to the city center and Trevi fountain, the largest Baroque fountain in the city. Various lovely plazas centered around giant stone figures sculpted into epic mythological scenes scatter the area. Hungered from hours of walking we tuck into an authentic little trattoria called Serafini alla Pace. Who would have thought that a tiny six table restaurant in an unmarked stone back alley would end up being one of the most delicious places I have ever eaten. The pizza neapolitan and pasta Vignoli with clams, mussels, shrimp and langoustines in a white wine sauce were mouthwatering. A local chianti and cappuccino later we are off to the Vatican for a brief look before the official tour the next day.
"apri gli occhi". No alarm clock needed. We wake so early we decide to skip cab fare and start walking to the Vatican. It’s still dark outside but great to see what the legendary city looks like before operating hours. We walk two hours, the sun rises around 7:15 and people begin to filter out of buildings. The sun warmly kisses our chilled cheeks and we meet our guide to begin our tour of the smallest yet one of the richest counties in the world (Vatican City) and its headquarters (The Vatican) before it officially opens to the public. The name "Vatican" predates Christianity. It means "Divining Serpent," and is derived from Vatis = Diviner and Can = Serpent. Possibly alluding to the belief that the serpent gave knowledge to humans. Vatican City and St. Peter's Basilica were built on the ancient pagan site called in Latin vaticanus mons or vaticanus collis, which means hill or mountain of prophecy. With an area of 110 acres and a population of about 1,000, it is the smallest sovereign state in the world by both area and population but what it lacks in size it makes up for in gold. It's thought to be the spiritual capital of the world (London being the financial and Washington DC the military; all city states with Egyptian obelisks). There are no passport controls for visitors entering. The pope is the sovereign of the state. Legislative authority is vested in the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State, a body of cardinals appointed by the pope for five-year periods. Executive power is in the hands of the president of that commission, assisted by the general secretary and deputy general secretary. The state's foreign relations are entrusted to the Holy See's Secretariat of State and diplomatic service. Nevertheless, the pope has absolute power in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches over Vatican City. He is currently the only absolute monarch in Europe. The Vatican City State is supported financially by the sale of stamps, coins, medals and tourist mementos; by fees for admission to museums; and by publications sales. Vatican City is home to some of the most famous art in the world. St. Peter's Basilica, whose successive architects include Bramante, Michelangelo, Giacomo della Porta, Maderno and Bernini, is a renowned work of Renaissance architecture. We enter the Museo de Vaticano, walk through endless hallways, ancient artifacts, admire paintings, tapestries and frescos. More money seems to be spent on gaudy decoration per square foot than any place I’ve seen in my entire existence. Ironic at the least, impressive to take in, scale its heights, gawk at, decode its art and fathom the time and budget it must’ve taken to complete, the Vatican is Goldmember’s wet dream. The Sistine Chapel is famous for its frescos, which include works by Perugino, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Botticelli as well as the ceiling and Last Judgment by Michelangelo in which are hidden many F-U s to those who commissioned it. We spent 20 minutes admiring it alone before the crowds came in. Next we venture to St. Peter’s Basilica. It was massive. It reminded me of Grand Central Station but larger and for transporting the soul instead of the body. The Vatican crypt was interesting and creepy. All pope's plots are predetermined and awaiting their death. They're simply a slab of concrete that will eventually become a sculpture of the once reigning pope. Sore necks ensue from looking up for so long and our tour ends. We decide to stay and climb the stairwell to the top of St. Peter’s Dome or Cupola to look down for a change. Six hundred and sixty six or so stairs later at the gilded top we take in the most impressive views of the city. This is the highest point in Rome with a 360 degree view. The buildings, streets and trees jet away from Vatican City and St. Peter's square in all directions like a geometric grey spiderweb or an all seeing eye. Close by you can get a good view of the Vatican Garden and The Pope's Audience Hall which not so ironically is shaped like the head of a snake.
On the walk back to our side of town we took a more scenic route and happened upon a wine shop. Inside we stocked up on a few Italian reds, a moscato, several jars of truffles & bruschetta, as well as an assortment of Lemoncello liquors and had them shipped home. The second shop we stopped in was called Eclectica which housed strange collectibles, unique objects and a small magic shop in the back. The shop keep gave us a short magic show and we bought a few esoteric & magic trick objects. Next, we venture through the sacred geometry that makes up the Pantheon. The name "Pantheon" is from the Ancient Greek "Pantheion" (Πάνθειον) meaning "of, relating to, or common to all the gods": (pan- / "παν-" meaning "all" + theion / "θεῖον"= meaning "of or sacred to a god"). The Pantheon still holds the record for the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome. The dome features sunken panels (coffers), in five rings of 28. This evenly spaced layout was difficult to achieve and, it is presumed, had symbolic meaning, either numerical, geometric, or lunar.
Pizza for lunch then we continue walking a few more miles in search of the Porta Alchemica, (The Alchemical Door) also known as the Alchemy Gate or Magic Portal (a monument built between 1678 and 1680) but when we arrive the park that houses it is closed for construction. A few turns later and we come across another crypt. The Capuchin Crypt is a small space comprised of several tiny chapels located beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini on the Via Veneto. They were morbid and off putting. Moving though the hallway with a heavy disconcerting energy the skeletons are arranged by the “artist” in strange poses and even decorated the chambers with bones of children; going so far as to make filigree designs, chandeliers and flowers all over the walls with various parts. It was distasteful and slightly sickening like something a serial killer would arrange in their basement. The six rooms consisted of:
Crypt of the Resurrection, featuring a picture of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, framed by various parts of the human skeleton.
The Mass Chapel, as an area used to celebrate Mass, does not contain bones. In the altar-piece, Jesus and Mary exhort St. Felix of Cantalice, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Anthony of Padua to free souls from Purgatory. The chapel contains a plaque with the acronym DOM, which stands for Deo optimo maximo ("To God, the best and greatest"), a term initially used to refer to the pagan god Jupiter, but claimed by later Christians. The plaque contains the actual heart of Maria Felice Peretti, the grand-niece of Pope Sixtus V and a supporter of the Capuchin order. The chapel also contains the tomb of the Papal Zouaves who died defending the Papal States at the battle of Porta Pia.
Crypt of the Skulls
Crypt of the Pelvises
Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones
Crypt of the Three Skeletons The center skeleton is enclosed in an oval, the symbol of life coming to birth. In its right hand it holds a scythe, symbol of death which cuts down everyone, like grass in a field, while its left hand holds the scales, symbolizing the good and evil deeds weighed by God when he judges the human soul. A placard in five languages declares:
"What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be..."
We exited changed and energetically drained. We rested up in the hotel only popping back out for dinner seeking out sushi to break up the string of heavy Italian meals. The street is packed as we make our way back shutting the door and sleeping to the low hum of crowds outside on the street.
It’s our last day in Rome so we sleep in then venture out mid morning for a cappuccino and lunch at a small trattoria with seats outside. Temperature is mild around mid 50’s and they have small space heaters set up around us for a cozy, jacket-less eating experience. The fettuccini papalina with cream, peas and ham was rich and filling and the gorgonzola gnocchi was tangy and delicious. Today is black Friday and the city is shoulder to shoulder with crazed shoppers as we join the chaos and do a little light shopping. We find a few items to bring back as gifts before seeking out a Chinese restaurant with a killer seafood fried rice. We also feel adventurous and order the Medusa dish. It’s a cold clear dish of jellyfish with a crunchy pickled pig ear consistency. It might be the weirdest thing I have ever eaten.
The next morning we take a car to Fumincino Airport where the driver pegged us as Americans and played the same ACDC song the entire ride. We leave Rome with inspired minds, cultured palates and happy hearts all while humming Hells Bells.
Words/Photos: Keith Ketchum