It was mid-morning when I got into the centre of Rome and straight away I set about my very important mission – I needed a barber shop. I may have started to get used to Swiss prices, but there is no way I’m paying over five times what I used to hand over in Sydney for someone to run a pair of electric clippers through my noggin, and I was hoping Rome would be a cheaper option than Geneva. With that easily achieved I could relax and get on with the rest of the weekend at leisure.
I started by lazily wandering through the vast green expanse of Villa Borghese, something I hadn’t seen on my previous visit to Rome back in 2000. The grounds may lack the finely manicured lawns of London and other European cities, but they’re big, shady and the slight wind blowing pollen from the many trees gave the enticing illusion that it was snowing. This is where the people of Rome come to relax in the relative peace and quiet, and the dogs of Rome come to run around and sniff each other’s bums.
I ambled out of the park and suddenly found myself back in familiar territory, straight into the Piazza del Popolo. In the middle of the square there was an exhibition celebrating the 153rd anniversary of the Polizia di Stato, complete with a collection of police cars from Italy and some other European countries. The two lines of Fiats, Peugeots, BMWs and other police cars were attracting quite a few admirers but a far bigger crowd was milling and having photos taken around two cars in the centre. It was something similar to the crush of people I was amongst at the Geneva Motor Show earlier in the year, and I could see why – these were a pair of fully kitted out Lamborghini Gallardo pursuit cars. These things were so hot the body work sizzled every time a slack-jawed onlooker salivated over them, and are just the thing for the traffic cops, the Polizia Stradale, in case they need to chase supersonic jets or possibly even low flying UFOs spotted on the Italian motorways.
There were some other, less temporary displays to see elsewhere that inevitably pull in the crowds, so I started off down Via del Corso towards them. The first was the Spanish Steps, the act of climbing them up to the scaffolding covering the Trinità dei Monti was a little tough, not because of the number of steps exactly, but more because of the sheer number of tourists milling about.
The second was the equally packed Trevi Fountain. While watching the masses toss a coin over their left shoulder into the crystal clear water I must admit I broke out into a slightly smug smile. I didn’t bother doing the same the first time I sat by the Trevi Fountain because I knew, one day, I’d be back in Rome regardless. And now, just shy of exactly five years later, here I was. I couldn’t help but reflect that in that time the more things had changed in Rome the more they had stayed the same. While the Lira had given way to the Euro and a different Pope was now shacked up in the Vatican, it was comforting to find that the train carriages running along the Metro were still as completely covered in graffiti from top to bottom as they were the last time I saw them.
Finally I sat in the late afternoon sun lazily watching the locals in their cars unsuccessfully trying to find parking spots alongside the Palazzo Venezia. This building has as much unabashed garishness as Zsa Zsa Gabor ever did, and the twin angels in chariots each drawn by four horses mounted at the top of either end of the monumental wedding cake building is one of the more unmistakable sights of any view of Rome’s skyline. I was quite taken by it, but perhaps that’s partly because it’s just about the only building intact in an area dominated by rambling ruins of ancient marble just sort of lying around the place, so it takes no imagination whatsoever to see it at its best.
In was then time to cross the River Tiber to my hostel in time for an organised pub crawl, which the girl who checked me in early in the afternoon had said was on at night. It was only a very small hostel, located in a part of the second floor of an otherwise residential apartment building, and with only seven other people taking part we all thought it was going to be a nice, intimate little gathering. When we got to the starting line, as it were, at the still congested Spanish Steps we found out we were only a small part of a much larger group of over fifty, mostly nineteen and twenty year old Americans. Quite a few of whom had either had a decent head start in the drinking caper or quite simply were Cadbury’s – a glass and a half was all it took to be three sheets to the wind. Though the venues we visited were not what I would typify as being uniquely Italian in any way, I was mostly drinking Guinness after all, it was still a good night. And two thumbs up to Italy for banning smoking in pubs too. In my opinion they’re as unlikely an EU candidate to lead the non-smoking charge as Ireland is, but it seems to be as successful here as it has been so far in the Emerald Isle.
With the recently appointed Pope Benedict XVI appearing in St Peters Square at around noon, I casually wandered down a little before then. Though the square was packed with thousands of the faithful who had come down early to grab a good spot, to my surprise there was still a bit of room around the outsides of the semi-circular colonnades at the boundaries of the piazza, and I was easily able to get a decent vantage spot of the front windows of the basilica where I expected the bloke in white to appear. The progress of the Mass inside was transmitted onto large video screens for the crowd outside, and when they showed the Pope and a whole lot of others leaving the service in a big procession I guessed it wouldn’t take too long for his public address. But with no sign of him after about twenty minutes I was a little confused. I know he’s not the youngest guy in the world, but how long does it take for the Pope to go up the couple of floors to one of the large windows above the basilica’s front doors? Does he nick off home first for a quick nap and a spot of lunch before facing the adoring masses?
I was roused from my idle daydreaming when a brief cheer went up all around me. I looked ahead but couldn’t see any movement. Then I glanced around to see where everybody else was looking, and over to my right on the top floor of a building in the general region of the Vatican Museum, behind the very far side of the square, the second window from the right was opened and a lectern was placed just inside it. A faraway figure in white was then visible, and after only a month in the job all I can say is that Benedict XVI has those big, open armed gestures that generate rapturous applause down pat. His address was in Italian of course but, with my fool-proof Italian-Australian translation, from what I could tell the main thrust of his address was “I dunno if youse can all see me when I’m all the way over here, but if youse can, keep on wavin’ to me till your arms feel like they’re gonna drop off”, because a good number of people around me responded very enthusiastically in such a fashion for the entire speech.
His message finished off with what I guessed was “Righto, that’s me done for the day. Time to chill out for the rest of the arvo, I reckon youse all should do the same.” So I wandered to a nearby hilltop with some green space and a panoramic vista of the city and did just that.
A couple of hours later I got back on my feet and ventured down to Castel Sant’Angelo, an old fortress near the Vatican, and then crossed back to the eastern side of the Tiber and over to that captivating Palazzo Venezia. Re-tracing old steps from my first Rome visit I walked through the Forum to the Colosseum and then covered some previously undiscovered territory to arrive at the Circo Massimo. According to my guidebook this was the site of a massive arena for chariot races with a capacity for 200,000 spectators. Now it’s just an untidy and rather forlorn bank of grass – this was most disappointing, I had walked all that way for nothing.
What wasn’t disappointing was dinner, spent with four American guys from the hostel. We chose to sit outside at a restaurant off Via Leone IV between the hostel and the Vatican, and I had a hankering for a big plate of spaghetti and mussels. Looking down the pasta section of the menu I didn’t see what I wanted, but when the waiter came out to take our order he announced that my desired dish was the special of the day and talked the other four into getting it too. It was every bit as good as I had hoped, and coupled with some assorted salads and a litre of beer, came to a price which just wouldn’t have been possible in Geneva. I’m thinking of sending the Pope a message to recommend the place in his future Sunday speeches.
Evan, one of my compatriots from the Saturday night pub crawl and Sunday night dinner, and I headed back to the Vatican. After being closed for the weekend the Vatican Museum was open today and, even though we got there not long after 9am, the line to get in was already snaking some considerable distance around the walls of the Holy See. From the front entrance we walked slightly dejectedly along towards the end of the line until Evan rather fortuitously spotted the youngsters who had shared our hostel room. Letting us in and saving us at least an extra half an hour wait was the least the little tackers could do for being so noisy, annoying and totally clueless over the weekend back at the hostel.
Speaking of cluelessness, perhaps the favourite anecdote from my first European trip in 2000 was how I managed to walk through the Sistine Chapel without even recognising it and stopping to looking around the interior. My excuse was the whole museum had been so congested with visitors, and the other rooms and galleries were just as preposterously ornate in their decoration, that I had mistaken the Sistine Chapel for just another of the museum’s other rooms. After glancing around briefly, I then shuffled through the visiting multitudes standing around to get to the next corridor to continue on to where I thought the Sistine Chapel would eventually be. Now on my second visit I was much more prepared, but completely understand how I managed to do such a seemingly impossible thing the first time. Knowing when I had made it to the Sistine Chapel and having paid more attention to it this time, I still maintain that Michelangelo’s most famous frescoes are no more spectacular than the grandeur of other parts of the museum, such as the Gallery of Maps (my personal favourite), and the rooms with their walls and ceilings painted by Raphael in the early sixteenth century. So there.
And that pearl of wisdom seems like a fitting way to have concluded my long weekend in the Eternal City. There is still no coin at the bottom of the Trevi Fountain to ensure I return, but then I know better than anyone else that that’s no strict requirement for coming back to Rome. The gelato, the pasta – and the cheap haircuts while I’m at it – are much more reliable drawcards.