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The background here on “Why Rome?” was pretty simple—I have a friend in Rome named Penelope from school, so as I try to visit friends outside the country, Rome was at the top of the list (Mike, New Zealand is next year, buddy!).  Ken “Dad” Bell hooked me up with some frequent flyer miles, so he covered a roughly-$450 plane ticket from Philadelphia to Rome, while I covered the $415 SFO/BOS/PHI/SFO multi-leg portion of the trip.  With no hotels to cover, the budget for the trip was $1000 (Boston and Rome included) for 11 days and when all was said and done, I came in at about $975.  So, I think everything worked out on the planning end...

..but, planning a trip and going on the damned thing sometimes don’t quite match up.  Sometimes.  Today, the sights of Rome...tomorrow, some observations on the Italian experience.

Well, after four days in “lovely” Boston, it was off to Rome.

The flight from Philly to Rome was 7.5 hours, which didn’t feel too rough mostly because of the good TiVo-style USAirways entertainment system.  We had the choice of five feature films and a bunch of TV shows from NBC, ESPN Classic, the History Channel, and others.  So, over the course of the flight, I watched “Die Another Day”, “The Emperor’s Club”, and a retrospective of the “Charlie’s Angels” TV show on A&E.  The best part was that you could rewind and fast forward through the films, so I skipped some parts of the Bond film that I didn’t like the first time around...and, I watched the opening Halle Berry scene like three times.  (I’m sure the lady next to me was weirded out, but who cares?)

Like my dad jokingly called it prior to the flight, Economy class on an A330 Airbus can be summed up in one word—fucking steerage.  Wow, I don’t think I have ever had less personal space.  Eating dinner—which was a surprisingly-good chicken dinner—was comedy, as I folded myself up to eat without bumping my seatmate.  Ugh.  Sleeping was even harder—the recline button was useless since I could only lay back a tiny bit, and of course, I couldn’t really stretch out the legs.  Sucked.

At 8:30 in the morning, we hit the tarmac in Rome.  After a train ride to the city and a bus ride to Penelope’s apartment to drop off the stuff (and, a three-hour Phatty to get the sleep back), it was time to sightsee.

The Vatican

I made the Vatican my first site visit and I must say, I was a bit underwhelmed.  Sure, the Sistine Chapel at the end of the tour is stunning, even if it was smaller than I expected.  The artwork all over the building’s walls—inside the Chapel and on the various other interiors—is spectacular and I hurt my neck craning around to see it all.  But, the rainy weather on my day’s visit, a 45-minute wait to enter and 14 billion kids in walking tours made the whole operation a bit lengthy.  I was pretty impressed with the whole shebang...just wish I could have shown up for a more personal tour of the building.  The various Vatican museums and the gardens outside give you plenty to do in one day if you can stomach it...but, I STILL can’t believe the Pope didn’t return my phone calls.

St. Peter’s Basilica

Now, this was some good stuff.  I freakin’ LOVE big churches, and the Basilica blew me away.  The square outside was awesome as well, but in the torrential downpour you couldn’t stand outside very long to enjoy it.  The architecture of the Basilica inside was very impressive, and standing near the altar and taking it all in was one of those cool, awe-inspiring moments that I figured would come in bunches during this trip.

The Pantheon

All of the reading that I did leading up to this trip was not very helpful, because I thought the Pantheon was going to be a bit more than, well, a big room with an open roof.  Again, the place is awesome in height, and the history of the place was not lost on me as one of Rome’s political centers back “in the day.”  But, I was in and out in 15 minutes!  You get the feeling when you go to the Pantheon that you have definitely missed something...and then, to add insult to injury, you realize that the signs for McDonalds RIGHT ACROSS THE SQUARE from the Pantheon dominate your attention with the bright yellow arches.  Damn those Americans!  Oh, wait a minute...

The Coliseum

Really, the Vatican and the Coliseum (I should be calling it Colosseo...but, I’m just going to call it the Coliseum, dammit) were the two sights at the top of my sights list, and in many ways, the Coliseum did not disappoint.  It is stunning that the main Roman arena from 2000 years ago is so similar to the stadiums and arenas that we Americans get to experience today—when you walk inside, you almost half-expect a Redskins/Cowboys game to be going on.  It was very easy to imagine 50,000 screaming fans anxious to see blood spilled over the famous gladiator battles of long ago.

However, the restoration of the place turned me off a bit.  A long wooden ramp that extends the length of the Coliseum—allowing visitors to look over the arena’s old underground passageways and holding cells—looks decidedly out of place in a large, uh, 2000-year-old stadium.  Plus, multiple sets of metal girders and beams made some parts of the Coliseum look like a new townhouse project in Rockville, Maryland—a constant work in progress that just happens to be the most famous stadium in the world.  You can never let something this special fall apart, but the overall look of the thing lost a little something with the modern construction that was going on.

Ancient Ruins / Forum

Loved this shit.  I got up really early one morning to check this out, and it was pretty sweet being in the Ruins before any of the large tourist groups took over the area.  The old relics left around in an essentially-open field helped create the idea of what city life was like Before Christ and just After He passed on.  Especially cool was the stadium that may have been used before those cagey Romans threw up the Coliseum, and the views of current-day Rome are pretty sweet to the west of the Ruins.

Villa Borghese

Another walk that I took early one day, Rome’s largest public park just north of the city center is just damned beautiful.  The grass truly is greener in this part of the city, and park workers have done an incredible job to maintain a place that must get roughed up quite regularly by tourists, Roman families and picnickers enjoying their daily siestas.  Unfortunately, I foolishly came here on a Monday, so all of the park’s four museums were closed (almost all restaurants and museums are closed on Mondays)...but, the leisurely stroll made up for that.  As Penelope tried to warn me before going, there really isn’t anything else in Villa Borghese—just the way Daddy likes it.

The Spanish Steps / Trevi Fountain

Two of the main people-watching spots in Rome in the northeastern section of the city center were both solid deliveries.  Trevi Fountain just blows you away with its size—it is a pretty monstrous creation, and because the area around it is so congested in terms of space, it makes the Fountain look bigger than some of the buildings it borders.  A film was in production at the Fountain when I visited, making for an even more ridiculous, carnival-like atmosphere as everyone tried to get a glimpse at the Italian stars in front of the camera.

The Spanish Steps—neither Spanish nor used for much actual walking—made for maybe the best people-watching activities during my trip, since so many stylish Italians made their post-lunch walks past the touristy location.  There are plenty of hip, expensive clothing stores nearby, so this location was perfect for checking out smooth-looking Italian cats and the various shades of beautiful women in Rome.

Stadio Olympico

One of my requirements on this trip outside of sightseeing was to catch a soccer game, and on Sunday, with perfect 70-degree weather and blue skies, Penelope, some friends and I caught a Roma/Parma match at the Stadio...what a sight.  The stadium seats 80,000, but even at the three-quarters-filled game I got to watch, the place was jammin’ every time Roma did something worthy of a cheer.  The plaza in front of the stadium, like every other plaza in the city, was beautiful and well laid out...too bad they didn’t have the Italian equivalent of stadium fries at the concession stands. 

Circus Maximus

What Circus Maximus WAS:  originally dug and built 2700 years ago, this was Rome’s first location used specifically for chariot races.  Caesar gave it a makeover around 2000 years ago, expanding the stadium’s capacity to a whopping 300,000 people and staging races, mock battles and other sporting events until the Circus was shut down around 550 AD.

What Circus Maximus IS:  a shitty, worn-down, trash-ridden dirt field that is used by all of Rome’s 17 joggers, a small number of dogs as a dumping ground and a place where tourists like me wonder:  “Couldn’t they use this space for an apartment complex?”

Overall, the sights of Rome were very interesting, but I will say that the historical buildings that I used to read about in history class are a one-and-done operation.  Now, the food and women on the other hand...

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The "fine print":
All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/ except where noted
© 1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09