First in a series on cycling through Italy’s Tuscany region
Early summer is the perfect time to visit Italy. The average daily temperature in metropolitan Rome is 26C, with little rain.
It’s when the Eternal City enjoys gentle Mediterranean breezes under bright blue skies, right up until the moment when it doesn’t anymore. For example, the moment when our plane bumps and grinds its way through the turbulence of a sleet storm and skids to a stop on the tarmac at Leonardo da Vinci International.
Outside, the ground crew is wearing what looks to be several layers of fashionable parkas, and for a moment I wonder if our pilot made a navigation error involving Finland, or perhaps one of the ice moons circling the planet Neptune.
My phone, still set to Victoria time, unhelpfully says the forecast is for sunshine and 27C back home.
A quick mental inventory of the contents of my suitcase makes me realize that a) I did not pack enough clothes to cycle across a cold, wet Italy; b) I may not even own enough clothes; and c) this existential dread isprobably how the rest of Canada feels every spring when Victoria posts flower photos. But never mind! No worries! Stiff upper thingy!
Rain and cold may not be what we wanted, but as my wife reminds me, it is better to be wet and freezing in Italy than to something or other I wasn’t really listening through the sobs and bitter recriminations.
It may surprise you to learn that Rome, crammed with so much art, architecture and history, is a lot like Victoria, British Columbia! Said no one. Ever. And for good reason: our wee Victoria is a young, unspoiled garden compared with Rome, which is heavy on the marble and light on the field and forest.
Like other very old cities around the world, Rome is really more of a giant archeological site with cars, cats and cash machines on top.
Modern Rome rests on the detritus of ancient cities that occupied the surrounding seven hills for almost 3,000 years.
It’s common for marble columns and stone blocks from previous civilizations to make their way into the modern, because it’s way easier to steal old-but-perfectly-good-with-a-nick-of-paint building materials than it is to make new ones (I’m looking at you, Vatican City).
On average, 20-30 feet of crap and debris separates modern Rome from ancient Rome beneath. Seriously, you can’t swing a dead cat here without hitting another, older dead cat. This is why Rome, a city of almost three million people, still has only two short subway lines. Not because of cats, of which there are many, but because it’s not safe to dig.
A developer laying the foundations of a new building might easily unearth precious Etruscan artefacts, and that means a lot of paperwork, which, if our Airbnb host is anything to judge by, Italians have to do a lot of already.
Rome was founded in 753 BC by twin brothers Romulus and Remus (né Anderson).
It’s not exactly a Disney story: a vestal virgin gets it on with Mars, the god of war; twins are born, sentenced to death and set adrift on the Tiber River; the boys are saved by a she-wolf; and in the very end, Romulus kills Remus.
The story is helpful in explaining a) why there are so many weird statues of she-wolves suckling baby boys; and b) why the city is called Rome instead of Reme.
Rome did not actually become the capital of a unified Italy for another 2,600 years, when in 1870 the city took the title away from Florence, which everybody knows is a girl’s name and not suitable for a capital city.
I considered renting a Vespa scooter and tooling around Rome with my wife, à la Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in the 1953 movie Roman Holiday. I considered this for about, oh, a quarter of a second, while observing typical Italian drivers doing their level best to kill everyone else on the roads, sidewalks and balconies.
No, the scooter is out, as is taking an Italian taxi, which sometimes also use the roads.
Fortunately, walking Rome is doable. All you need is a good map and rudimentary sense of direction/willingness to argue with your wife in order to navigate the labyrinth of narrow streets that is old town.
Also, feet. Remember to bring feet. I nearly forgot mine at home, which would have been a disaster because they are very expensive in Europe.
Anyway, once you’re actually in Rome, you can start living la dolce vita, which is Italian for “gelato,” or possibly another delicious frozen dessert.
The point is, Rome is absolutely packed with artistic riches and historical legacies, which many, many, many tour companies want to show you for outrageous fees and generally terrible service.
Where to begin? Well, after three long, fulfilling days exploring monuments and museums, I can confidently tell you that I have no idea.
It depends on how much time you have, and your personal tolerance for crowds and generally terrible service. All I can tell you is what we saw and did, apart from certain, possibly naughty, things I may have done in the Sistine Chapel when no one was looking.
Uncle Dave’s Top-Five Roman Must-dos
1. The Colosseum
Nothing could have prepared me — or the six million other annual visitors — for my first peek at this beautiful, iconic amphitheatre, first commissioned in 72 AD by Emperor Vespasian. His son Titus finished it in 80 AD (not personally, of course; that was done by Hebrew slaves after the sacking of Jerusalem eight years earlier) and inaugurated the 50,000-seat arena with games that lasted 100 days and featured the violent deaths of some 5,000 animals. Over the centuries, more than 500,000 people and one million animals were killed (the last documented gladiator fight took place in 435 AD). Depending on your feelings about people and animals, that’s either a feature or a bug.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Colosseum sat around doing little. It was used as a fortress by the Frangipani family in the 12th century, became a Blockbuster video outlet for a while, and was later plundered for building materials. It recently had a €25 million facelift to address the last hundred years of pollution and vibrations from Italian traffic.
Pros: Gladiators; one of the world’s iconic buildings; “skip the line” tickets are available, which make you feel like a total boss
Cons: difficult to spell; too many tourists doing Russell Crowe impressions
2. St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums
Rome has more than 900 churches, and regardless of your faith, its ecclesiastical buildings are architectural marvels, full of breathtaking artwork by the likes of Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Raphael and many others I can neither remember nor spell correctly. A day or two taking in the sublime paintings, sculptures and architecture leaves you stunned with an existential mix of awe and regret at not having done anything of value with your own life. St. Peter’s Basilica, in particular, both opens and shuts your mouth. It contains three of Italy’s most celebrated masterpieces: Michelangelo’s Pietà, his massive dome above the building, and Bernini’s 29-metre baldachin over the papal altar. The Vatican Museums contain the world’s greatest art collection, with about seven kilometres of exhibitions. If that all sounds overwhelming, it is. Most visitors come as part of a third-party tour group pushed through the galleries at a breakneck pace aimed to satisfy those with a tick-the-I-visited-the-Vatican-box mindset, but leaves the rest of us depressed over what we missed. The tours invariably end at the Sistine Chapel, which contains Michelangelo’s painted ceiling and several bored guards whose main job is to yell at people for whispering and taking photos.
Pros: a lot of artwork; fancy-pants Swiss guards; “skip the line” tickets are available, which make you feel like a total boss
Cons: too much artwork; too many tourists; I’m not complaining but does it seem a little Catholicy?
3. Trevi Fountain
The Fontana di Trevi (“tre vie” refers to the three roads that converge at the fountain) is an over-the-top baroque extravaganza that almost completely fills an entire piazza (Italian for “pizza”). Designed in 1732 by Nicola Salvi (also Italian for “pizza”), this 20-metre wide by 26-metre high marble monstrosity depicts the sea god Oceanus’ chariot being led by two Tritons on sea horses: a wild one, and a docile one, representing the two moods of pizza vendors. The 1954 movie Three Coins in the Fountain established a tradition of tossing a coin into the fountain to ensure your return to Rome. Today, 700,000 euros of coins are tossed into the Trevi Fountain every year, which is handy to know if, say, you need change to make a phone call or do some laundry.
Pro: free coins in the fountain
Con: too many tourists
4. Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish Steps, Museo e Galleria Borghese, Pantheon, Roman Forum, and everything else in Rome
OK, OK, including “everything else” as a top five entry is a bit of a cop-out, but my point is that you can’t go wrong in Rome. Everything is amazing all the time, and visiting any site of historical and artistic significance is worth doing. Go with a good guide book and a heart ready to be delighted, rather than a bucket list agenda, so you can spend as much time as you like rather than worrying you’ve missed something important elsewhere. You have missed something else — many things — but don’t sweat it.
Pro: no end of mind-blowing experiences for the rest of your life
Con: too many tourists
5. Eat like pro
Twentieth-century food writer M.F.K. Fisher was fond of saying: “First we eat, then we do everything else.” This strikes me as a pretty solid approach to life, and also suggests she was familiar with Italian cooking. The Italians really know what they are doing in the kitchen, and despite the caloric catastrophe that is pasta, none of the locals I met were fat. I have no explanation for this, save for the following bon mot from Italian actress, and undeniable tomato, Sophia Loren: “Everything you see I owe to pasta.”
Breakfast in Rome is typically a small affair on the way to work, involving high-octane cappuccino taken quickly while standing at the counter, perhaps with a small pastry. Lunch is the main meal of the day, which includes several courses, each with wine. Dinner is usually a smaller meal, eaten after 8 p.m. when the tourists have gone to bed. You can’t see this, but I am drooling all over my keyboard just thinking about the food. My point is that food needs to be part of your daily sightseeing plans, and the farther away from the touristy sites the better (and cheaper).
Pros: pasta, Chianti, gelato, etc. etc. etc.
Cons: food in the touristy parts of Rome is too expensive; French people will violently disagree with you about how amazing Italian food is; you will probably get very fat, very fast
Next week: All those roads that lead to Rome also leave it. And thus we visit Florence, one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, and wonder what exactly people mean by, “under the Tuscan sun.”