The fourth port of call on our Mediterranean cruise was Civitavecchia—"Gateway to Rome." Once again, we had many excursions to choose from. The four of us who were traveling together—my sister Susan, brother-in-law Kevin, Loretta, and I—chose the "Rome Overnight Experience," which included a tour of the Colosseum, a walking tour of Rome, and a tour of the Vatican. Our guide's name was Alessia. On the bus, she handed out beautiful, detailed maps of the city, which we put away and never looked at again. She explained that ancient Rome was on the left bank of the Tiber River (which was on the right side of our map), while Vatican City was on the right bank (the left side of our map).
Once we were in the city, we stopped to pick up another guide: Alessandra. Apparently, Alessia was not licensed to guide us within Rome, and there are strict laws about such things. (I found this account of an unlicensed guide who was arrested in the middle of a tour, leaving her group stranded at the Forum.) Like our guide in Pisa, Alessandra warned us about pickpockets. However she told us not to worry too much, because "the worst pickpockets are in the government." We were equipped with state-of-the-art radio receivers which ensured that we could always hear Alessandra's voice. They did not, however, give us any indication which direction her voice was coming from; we soon learned that if we did not keep up, we could easily get lost from the group.
Our first stop was the Colosseum. By the way, did you know that "Colosseum" was not the actual name of the building? The actual name was "Flavian Amphiteatre." It became known as "The Colosseum" because of the large statue ("colossus") that once stood outside it. Of it, Mark Twain wrote:
More vividly than all the written histories, the Coliseum tells the story of Rome's grandeur and Rome's decay. It is the worthiest type of both that exists. Moving about the Rome of to-day, we might find it hard to believe in her old magnificence and her millions of population; but with this stubborn evidence before us that she was obliged to have a theatre with sitting room for eighty thousand persons and standing room for twenty thousand more, to accommodate such of her citizens as required amusement, we find belief less difficult.What sort of amusement did those citizens require? According to Alessandra, the lunchtime executions were popular, as were the wild animal hunts. At times, if some accounts are to believed, the amphitheater was even flooded to portray naval battles. However, the most popular events were the gladiator matches. The best gladiators were like the rock stars of today, and if they were very good (and very very lucky), they might live long enough to win their freedom and retire to live lifestyles of the rich and famous.
|Alessandra shows us where the Roman sports fans sat.|
We boarded the bus again and drove by other landmarks: the Circus Maximus, the Forum, Caesar's Palace (the real one), and the Victor Emmanuel Monument. We then got off the bus for a walking tour that took us past the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, and the Pantheon, and ended at the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona.
We were told we had an hour of free time, and to meet back at the fountain. We retraced our steps for a closer look at the Pantheon, then returned to a sidewalk cafe next to our rendezvous place. Our timing was perfect. We had felt a few sprinkles on our walk; as soon as we were served our drinks, it began to pour. I think my favorite memory of Rome is of the four of us sitting in that cafe, sipping espresso and watching people in the piazza run for cover.
After the brief downpour, the city felt cooler, fresher, and cleaner. We met up with our tour group and walked to a nearby restaurant for lunch, after which the bus took us to our hotel. Once we were checked in, we had a nice nap. We had been told that it was common in Italy to take a siesta—or "riposo"—in the afternoon, and as they say, "When in Rome..."
In the evening we gathered in the lobby and were herded, along with several other tour groups staying at the hotel, onto buses to take us to dinner at Tanagra Caffe Concerto—a sort of operatic dinner theater. Between courses, we were entertained by a pianist and singers performing a selection of popular arias, duets, and quartets. There was some audience participation, and I had the honor (no doubt due to my lack of hair) of being chosen as a customer by Figaro, the famous "Barber of Seville." Thanks to my stellar performance, I became a minor celebrity on board the ship and learned not to be insulted when strangers asked me if I needed a shave.
|A Close Shave (photo courtesy of David Lawrence)|
After dinner, we were to have a night-time bus tour of the city before being returned to our hotel. We four were among the last to board. We got on a bus that supposedly had four empty seats, only to find that a woman was saving an empty seat for her husband. Loretta and I got off and found seats in the last row of another bus. There was a delay getting started; the guides had to check each bus to see if the lady's missing husband was on one of the other buses. I'm not sure they ever found him. He may still be in Rome.
Rome is beautiful at night—I suppose. I can't say I enjoyed it much. The woman sitting across from me wasn't enjoying it, and she was determined to make sure nobody else on the bus—at least nobody within earshot—was going to enjoy it either. A few minutes into the tour, she began to fidget and sigh, then to yawn loudly. Finally, she began not-so-quietly whining, to herself or to anyone who would listen (and believe me, we all tried our best not to): "This is pointless! ... Didn't we see this this morning? ... Does anyone really want to be doing this?"
Clearly someone did not get her afternoon riposo.
(I was reminded of the stories my Aunt Vonna used to tell about her great-aunt—my Grandfather Shorter's Aunt Flo. By all accounts, Aunt Flo seldom had anything positive to say about anything. When she returned from a trip to Europe, my grandmother asked her how she enjoyed it. "Oh, June," she replied, "It was nothing but ruins. Nothing but ruins!")
After breakfast the next morning, we checked out of the hotel and boarded our bus for the Vatican tour. (By the way, if you plan to visit the Vatican, I recommend you only do so with a guided tour. People were lined up around the block to get in, but we zipped past them in our own special line and went straight to the front.) Our guide this time was Sylvia. Once we were inside the Vatican Museum, she told us that it would take decades to see everything, even if you only stopped for couple of minutes at each exhibit. I don't see how it would be possible to stop for a couple of minutes at each exhibit. The museum was so crowded, it was like being swept along by the current in a river of people. I vaguely recall seeing some statues and tapestries. It was impossible to get good pictures.
It's impossible to get any pictures in the Sistine Chapel, because it's not allowed. Basically, nothing is allowed in the Sistine Chapel—not even talking. Sylvia had to tell us what we were going to see before we went in. The ceiling was impressive, of course, but what I found most fascinating was Michelangelo's face on the flayed skin of a saint. Sylvia had told us that this self-portrait in The Last Judgment was a rarity. Unlike other Renaissance artists, Michelangelo almost never painted himself into his works. If he was truly that ugly, I can see why. If he hadn't been such a great artist, he could have gotten a job posing as a model for gargoyles.
|Sylvia tells us what a brilliant, unattractive man Michelangelo was.|
What can I say about St. Peter's Basilica? Well, for one thing, it's big. When it comes to architectural beauty, I'll take Notre Dame de Paris or Barcelona's Sagrada Familia, but you certainly can't beat St. Peter's for size. And it has something else those other churches don't: popes—loads of them, from St. Peter himself to John Paul II. They thought so much of this pope that they covered him in silver and put him on display like the crown jewels:
I believe there were even a couple of live popes somewhere in the vicinity, but we didn't see them.
We had lunch at Papa Rex, a restaurant just outside the Vatican. Then it was "Arrivederci Roma," as we boarded the bus to return to the ship. We were all pretty much exhausted by our visit to Rome. You're probably exhausted reading about it. I know I'm tired of writing about it.
Time for a riposo.