After one week in Italy, the time had come to make our way further south and experience the capital city of Roma. The name of the city reminds me of the Italian word romanzo, which refers to the literary form we call the novel in English. As a former English teacher, I can tell you that while it may not be easy to take in all of the cosmopolitanism, history, and culture of Roma (especially in a short visit), this city is a book well worth reading.
Mere and I stayed in an apartment in the Trastevere neighborhood for our Roman holiday. Getting to this area of Rome involved some more typical big city run-ins, such as a group of kids swarming around my seat on the bus (with the likely intent of looking for an easy-to-grab wallet—a risk avoided, fortunately due to some expert advice I took) and a bus driver who vociferously yelled “attenzione!” and pointed to his eyes as an upbraiding for my failure to buy tickets in advance of the ride. Peccato!
I Piaceri di Roma
Our apartment was a cozy 2nd floor pad located on one of the neighborhood’s cramped little streets. We went through a giant old set of heavy wooden double doors and then through a dark old courtyard that had little gates that seemed to be from the 1970’s. There was a friendly black cat named Hillary walking about. Meredith helped me get my sense of direction on our first day by taking us over to see the famous Tevere, or Tiber river. As one would expect, we had delicious meals at a number of restaurants around the city. There were some memorable encounters with gelato as well.
We took in a number of the cultural essentials. Meredith was my guida, since she had been to the city before, and her program did not come up short in any respect. If I recall correctly, we visited the Pantheon as one of our first sights.
The Trevi Fountain surprised me in the way that it majestically appears as if materializing before one’s eyes—incongruously tucked within dense and twisting city blocks. It was such a spectacular sight that we would go back for a second viewing later.
We saw the grand exterior of the Cathedral of Peter and explored the art and sculpture of the Vatican Museum. The Greek and Roman mythology on display was a highlight unto itself. The view down the spiral staircase to the exit caught my attention as we descended.
We had clear and cool March weather for one of our most exciting days of the trip: the guided tour of the famous Colosseum and the exploration of the Roman Forum.
The architecture and the story of the colosseum are breathtaking. The tour engages both the eyes and the imagination because both are needed to understand the pageantry and mechanical functionality of what happened in that structure during the gladiatorial “games” and other public entertainments.
I’ve always been an avid walker, and the Roman Forum was one of my favorite places to embrace the role of the tourist and slowly walk around, absorbing completely my surroundings. I think that Meredith sensed that I would have this reaction because of the unique quality of the Forum as a kind of sprawling open-air museum of the ancient city.
The Roman experience is all about the juxtaposition of the modern and the ancient worlds right next to each other. At one point, we found ourselves near a possible location of where Julius Caesar had been murdered more than 2000 years ago. It was a full city block of old ruins and columns, which were surrounded by private and commercial buildings from the 20th century.
The city itself was made to speak to us through its art and sculpture and also its occasional graffiti.
Il Piccolo Mondo Bello di Sorrento
After visiting several of Italy’s biggest cities, it was now time to coordinate with my Mom and George in preparation for the train ride to the smaller town of Sorrento. My parents arrived in Rome after their nonstop flight to Rome from Philly, and I have to hand it to them because they managed to make it through the long flight with sufficient energy to handle both the train from Roma to Napoli as well as the more dubious “Circumvesuviana” train from Napoli to Sorrento with us. Not to mention a bit of walking on winding streets to find our rental lodgings (which turned out to be delightful).
On our first full day in lovely little Sorrento, Meredith and I took a guided food tour of the town and learned our way around while my parents decided to wing it and check out a restaurant near our rental. Both parties fared very well, and we were all looking forward to some folks arriving in a couple of days from Omagh, Northern Ireland.
In Sorrento, one must remember that Mt. Vesuvius is not so far away. The same destructive power that made Pompeii a site of tragedy all those years ago could be seen in other ways. Our food tour guide explained to us that an old, high-walled narrow street near the bay had been created by volcanic ash burning through tens of yards of rock down to the sea level. Mother nature, it turned out, was quite a city planner in her own way.
Of course, there was once again time for some proper study of gelato at its best, courtesy of a great little place called Puro located on a side street just a short way past the town center.
Before our family from Ireland arrived, we made the unforgettable little gita (day trip) to the island of Capri. While we did not have the time to make our way across the whole isle or visit the famous Blue Grotto, we found that the 20-minute journey by high speed ferry was well worth the trip. The four of us rode the funicular slowly up the side of the mountain and then went for a memorable stroll on one of the most picturesque and famous islands in the world. It’s not hard to see why the reclusive Tiberius decided to make this his home during his time as emperor. And needless to say, the seafood was plentiful and delicious.
On the evening of the next day, the four of us waited at the train station for arrivals from the Emerald Isle, including our family’s only dual citizenship holder. After they had braved a succession of vehicles on land and air, Lisa, John, and Bronagh walked off their train to greet us. Marianne was unabashedly teary-eyed at the reunion, and maybe I was just a little bit too.
We went right over to a restaurant we had found a day or two earlier on the main street, Corso Italia. The owner’s name was Catello, and he had been enjoying joking around with George by giving him the French pronunciation of his name. When we all walked in his expression lit up, and he said “Zhaur-zh!” while preparing to get us a table. When Catello found out that John preferred beer to wine, he gave John the biggest glass of beer I’ve ever seen—it looked like about 45 or 50 oz.
The next day we would have one of the absolute highlights of the trip: a guided tour of the Pompeii scavi, or ruins of the fabled city of Pompeii.
My niece Bronagh approached the trip with the humor of an Italian and the inquisitiveness of an investigative journalist, asking superb questions about the ancient city. I also took opportunities to ask questions of our guide about the language in particular as we learned about the city’s life prior to the eruption of Vesuvio.
The main grounds in the town center of Pompeii featured modern interpretations of Greco-Roman art in the form of busts and other sculptures—all intentionally done as fragments to coordinate with the identity of the city as a defunct hub of civilization.
We saw the old brick structures that were used as ovens for baking bread, the street signs in Roman numerals and the classic arches and pillars all around us. We even spied a few tragically preserved sets of human remains. I particularly liked the outdoor theater that we found among the many preserved structures.
When we got back to Sorrento Sweet Home at the end of the day, we knew that our concluding trip back up to Rome was approaching. Meredith and I shared with the whole group some of our favorite parts of Sorrento that the two of us had discovered earlier, including a famous Christian patron of wildlife named Francesco and some of the best views from this city on the water.
Before long, we would say goodbye to the citrus trees rich with their ripe oranges and lemons and this small coastal town that had won us all over.
Back in Rome on the last night for the whole group, we had the opportunity to have a nice dinner of pasta and pizza all together before Mere and I would be the first to leave the country next morning. Lisa had the opportunity to dust off her French language skills at my parents’ hotel. Meredith used her map skills and flair for getting the most out of the available time to navigate us all to a night viewing of the Trevi Fountain. We tossed our coins over our shoulders into the water, and posed for pictures along with the hundreds of other tourists.
It would be difficult to choose favorite parts of this trip since so many of the activities and days were vividly memorable. My first trip to mainland Europe and l’Italia in particular was everything I hoped for and more. At this point in my life, I do not have the comforts of a traditional religion. I am one who studies and appreciates the old stories but I do not venerate the biblical prophets and saints, which is certainly ironic in the context of discussing the land and the cultural history of Italy in particular. However, this trip with Meredith and my family of travelers provided a sense of exploration, connection, and the best of life—a true adventure for the soul. Arrivederci Italia, e spero che La vediamo ancora nel futuro (Farewell Italy, and I hope that we see you again in the future).