The last time we had stood in an immigration queue, the Dems were controlling the Legislature and the Executive, Federer and Nadal held all the slams, and, Sachin and Sehwag were opening the batting. It has been less than decade since, but does indeed seem like an eon. As the immigration bit being the only one we had any sort of control over on this nostalgic list, finally deciding to stand in one was a no-brainer. The yes-brainer was to decide as to which one. We had a week and the month was June and Europe seemed like a natural choice. Wife wanted one of those “if it is Tuesday, it must be Paris” trips while yours truly wanted to spend it all in the Raphael Rooms. After some deep discussion, we settled on Rome-and-a-bit. Three months or the time needed to binge watch all Rome documentaries on the planet, we had our passports renewed, visa stamped and heads muddled not being able to tell Caligula from Caracalla or Domitian from Diocletian or Bernini from Borromini. After eight hours in cattle class and a three Karan Johar movies to add to the torture, we were in Rome with barely enough sanity left to locate our taxi and get to our hotel.
Borghese Gallery was our first stop on our first morning in Rome. It took the city’s best museum and all of its Bernini Baroque masterpieces (the reaper, the raper and the refugee) to keep us from curling in a corner and going to sleep due to the jet-lag. After a hearty lunch, a stiff cappuccino and a long walk, we were more ready to take on the lesser known Museum of Ancient Art at the Palazzo Barberini where the haunting looks of Raphael’s La Fornarina and Carravaggio’s Judith left a lasting impression. Rogue’s list of Rome’s top sites and dodging the crowd to photograph them rounded off the day – Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon and the Piazza Navona. Of these, the Pantheon is the oldest and also the earliest example of a Trump Tower i.e. the name on the building has very little to do with who made it. Although the façade has a “Marcus Agrippa” chiseled on it, it was Hadrian who built most of what you see today. But unlike Trump, Agrippa did not buy a building and etch his name, but it was Hadrian who decided to leave the wrong name in front to confuse the historians of the future. Pantheon is also the only Roman building to survive almost intact, as someone down the line had the foresight to convert it to a church preserving it till the modern era. Thanks to it, one gets to marvel at an example of ancient Roman engineering – a perfect hemispherical dome sitting on a room that is exactly large enough to contain its mirror image. Fountains in Piazza Navona, especially Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) needs an honourable mention even on a long day of superlatives. Somewhere in between we gave Carravaggio another chance to awe us with his St. Mathew series at the San Luigi dei Francesi (Church of St. Louis of the French).
Next morning found us inside the world’s first Jesuit church – Chiesa del Gesu (Church of the Gesu), transfixed by Baciccia’s grandiose ceiling fresco. Soon a booming voice reminded us not to forget our true calling – the long to-do list for the day. The voice was of the priest and since we don’t speak any Italian we aren’t exactly sure of what he said. He probably asked us to buzz off as we were holding up his Sunday Mass. We left the religious for the secular – the dazzling Doria Pamphilj Gallery. When one of the Pamphilij became the Pope (let’s say, Innocent X), the family got enough means and ways to amass a vast art collection which is now displayed at the museum. Apart from the sumptuous palace itself, Velasquez’ daring portrait of the Pope made the dekko worthwhile. Half a kilometer down the road is the city’s largest monument, Victor Emmanuel II Monument dedicated to the first king of unified Italy. Inside is the museum of Italian Unification which has little interest to a non-patriotic tourist who just heads to the rear to take the lift up to the top to enjoy the bird’s eye view of the city. After a quick lunch at a pizzeria, we headed to the most important of the seven hills of Rome – the Capitoline. Once housing the enormous Temple of Jupiter at the dawn of the Roman Republic, it now hosts the famous Capitoline Museums and a befitting sumptuous plaza designed by Michelangelo. The museum holds most of the iconic Roman statues – She-Wolf of Rome, the flawless Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius, the giant Head of Constantine, the Dying Gaul, the Spinario and the Capitoline Venus. Normal humans would have called it a day. Since we aren’t, we made a beeline to the Roman Forum where walked who-is-who of Roman aristocracy and took place what-is-what of its history. It was here that the fire tended by the Vestal Virgins burnt nearly a millennia, Cicero gave his famous speeches, Mark Antony gave his on Caesar’s funeral, Nero fiddled while his fire burned, Domitian commemorated the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and also built his sumptuous palace. How we managed to cover it all within 2 hours at the fag end of a scorching day will remain one of the eternal unsolved mysteries of the universe.
The following day, we got to the Colosseum armed with pre-booked tickets before the opening time. In an alternate universe, we should have made it in before the crowd waltzed in. But in our universe, we fell for the oldest con in Rome – group guided tour squandering all our advantages by listening to a crank who couldn’t stop talking about his favourite football team. The result – all of Rome made it in before us and we tried in vain to take a few photos and gave up and took sanctuary in the practically deserted churches of Rome. The first of these was the Basilica de San Clemente (Basilica of St. Clement) which has as many layers as the entire Roman history. It is a fine medieval church sitting on top of an earlier 4th century church, sitting on top of a 2nd century Mithraeum, sitting on top of a 1st century Roman house, and taking stairs lets one lose elevation and centuries. San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter in Chains), the next on our list, is famous for housing the very chains that shackled St. Peter and Michelangelo’s iconic Moses, part of the unfinished Tomb of Julius II. The final two churches constitute the half of the four Major Basilicas – Santa Maria Maggiore (St. Mary Majors) and San Giovanni Laterano (St. John Lateran). The latter was more impressive, thanks to Borromini’s radical transformation of the interior in the 17th century and for its 13th century cloister. We finished the day walking through the Imperial Fora which would have been part of the Roman Forum but for Mussolini’s decision to split the two by building a highway through the ruins.
We spent the next day in the neighbouring country of Vatican City. Apart from pre-booked tickets, this time our armoury also included the lessons learnt at the Colosseum and hence, we managed to get in quickly and visit the less famous galleries in near solitude. By the time we made it to the highlights – the Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel, we had to contend with rest of humanity. Thankfully, the masters anticipating the 21st century problems, had painted their masterpieces on or near the ceiling. All we had to do was to ignore the incessant cacophonous blabbering of the tour guides to have one of the most unforgettable experiences of our lifetime. The next, of course, was the St. Peters and we headed to the rooftop first to beat whatever crowd we could and in about an hour had the classic sweeping view of ‘Rome from Vatican’. Michelangelo is the only human who can overwhelm anyone twice on the same day, in two different disciplines, long after his death. He did that in the morning at the Sistine and he did that again with his Pieta at the Basilica, which must rank as the most breathtaking piece anyone has ever sculpted. Bernini’s towering baldachin came a distant second, but second nevertheless. To round off the day, we headed to the Castel Sant’Angelo, a mausoleum that Hadrian built for himself in the thirties (“one hundred and”, that is) which the popes later converted into a fort and held court in the times of distress. The building is hence a strange amalgam of mausoleum, fort commanding sweeping views across Rome and a sumptuous palace to entertain diplomats.
Our next target was Tivoli. Located about 40 kms from the centre of Rome, it houses the 16th century Villa d’Este created by the cardinal Ippolito d’Este as means to impress his way to the papacy. The villa rooms adorned with impressive mannerist frescoes is reason enough to get all the way here, but the villa also houses one of the finest Renaissance Gardens in the country. The garden houses a wall of fountains, roaring fountains, musical fountains and everything in between and can impress even the most jaded tourist. Few kilometers from the villa (last one and bit needs to be covered on foot unless you have access to one of them European cars) is a millennia (and a bit) older Villa Adriana (Hadrian's Villa), from where ruled the emperor during the end of his reign. Being the most travelled emperor, Hadrian tried to recreate snippets of the far away corners inside his villa. The best preserved of these are the Serapeum (mimicking the Temple of Serapis in Canopus) and a Maritime Theatre (mimicking the Greek theatres), sitting on its own artificial island.
The following day we visited Orvieto, a picture perfect medieval town sitting atop a rocky outcrop commanding sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. The town houses Italy’s finest Gothic cathedrals with a façade to die for and an interior housing the inspiration behind Michelangelo’s Last Judgment: a namesake series by Luca Signorelli, where people who died for got on. Also-present in the town is the 12th century Chiesa di Sant’Andrea housing some impressive sculptures and a 16th century Pozzo di San Patrizio (St. Patrick's Well), a 60 m deep well with two sets of spiral staircase. We made it back to Rome with time to spare to take care of some of the unfinished business, first of which was right across the Termini – Palazzo Massimo. It houses some of the best Roman art, mostly 2nd century AD Roman imitation of 3rd century BC Greek originals. The highlight of course being the frescoes of Villa Livia painstakingly moved here into a temperature controlled exhibit. After a quick in-and-out of the Diocletian’s Baths, we ended the day at the Santa Maria della Vittoria (Our Lady of Victory) which houses Bernini’s baroque answer to Michelangelo’s Pieta – The Ecstasy of St. Teresa.
We had taken a two day break from Rome because on the following day, Italian transport workers were planning to do what our legs couldn’t: go on a strike. Taxis, the only non-manual means of transport, were in short supply and we somehow managed to share one to get to Piazza del Popolo. It houses the Basilica di Santa Maria del Popolo which in turn houses a brace of yet another Carravaggio masterpieces: Conversion on the Way to Damascus and the Crucifixion of St. Peter. A shortish walk from there brought us to Ara Pacis, a temple that Augustus constructed to sell Romans the dream of Pax Romana which would follow if he be made the emperor. The next stop was the Palazzo Altemps which continued the Roman art collection left over from Palazzo Massimo housing the impressive Galata Suicida (Suicide of a Gaul)and a stunning Roman sarcophagus from the 3rd century. After a quick lunch and a customary hat-tip to Bruno at the Campo de Fiori, we headed to the lesser known Palazzo Spada. One comes this far not for its mildly interesting painting gallery, but to be hoodwinked by the Borromini’s Perspective – an optical illusion where a corridor of just 10 m is made to look much longer by cleverly tapered floor and ceiling with progressively shortened pillars. Having found the elusive empty taxi outside the museum, we made a daring decision to visit the Catacombs. As the Roman law forbade burials inside the city, the Church bought a piece of land outside its limits donating a small grave to the Christian community. All of the early Christians were buried in here and once the area got full, they started digging deeper for a layered burial chambers resulting in a labyrinth of catacombs. Catacombs also served as the final resting place for many of the early popes, early makeshift churches, temporary safe haven for important relics and place to study early Christian symbols and iconography. A fascinating place like no other in Rome and a must-see. By the way, the “daring” bit that I alluded to on the decision to get here was not about getting mugged by the ghosts of the past, but about the return journey which was staring at us after a couple of catacombs tours. It is hard to find a return taxi even on a normal day and today it was next to impossible. After a few feeble attempts to locate one, we started on the long walk back to Rome hoping someone would ask us “Quo Vadis” and offer us a lift. We weren’t as lucky as Peter, but at least lucky enough to find a taxi dropping off some passengers within a couple of kilometers. After a bit of convincing we got him to drop us back at our hotel.
Before Rome became a republic in 509 BC, it was ruled by a series of Etruscan kings. Tarquinia, an hour north west of Rome, is one of their ancestral towns and that is where we headed on Saturday. It is famous for its necropolis, a series of 6000 (and counting) tombs, 60 of which painted in bright frescoes depicting the local landscape, banquets, music and such. Twenty (or thereabouts) of these tombs are open to public where coming face to face with 500 BC frescoes in a remarkably good condition gave us goosebumps. The funerary artifacts that filled these tombs are now preserved in the Museo Nazionale Tarquiense (Tarquinia National Museum). Upon returning to Rome, we checked out the last of its monuments that was left over from our bucket list: the Baths of Caracalla. Despite coming at the end of a trip of superlatives, the baths could amaze us with its sheer scale and grandeur.
Our flight back on the final day wasn’t until 8 pm. Ostia Antica, located in the general vicinity of the airport seemed like a great place to spend the day. It was an ancient Roman port city abandoned in about 4th century once Tiber changed its course making the place no longer economically viable. It is one of the few places you can see ancient Rome frozen in time without anything being built over it (others being Pompeii and its sister towns). One can see a restaurant-cum-bar, multi-storied residential complex, laundromat, public places, and a theatre in as pristine condition as time would allow it to be in a millennium and a half (and a bit). The most interesting part of the sprawling city is the main market which had mosaics advertising the wares in front of every shop. Since the ruins were supposed to be covered en-route to the airport, we had arrived with lock, stock and barrel and the site had no locker room facility. After some brave attempts to lug the luggage around, we deposited it under a tree which made the retrieval a fun treasure hunt where “behind the School of Trajan and to the left of the Hercules Temple as you face the setting sun” was a literal and not a secret location code. Ostia is also where we found the tender side of Rome. Our guide for the day, realising the lack of a convenient transport, dropped us to the airport in his own car. That’s how fairy tales end. Life isn’t one. We had an Air India return journey to contend with. They somehow managed to mangle the seating splitting every single family on board. We, the passengers, spoke a hundred different languages and had a thousand dietary habits. Sorting all that out kept us busy (and up) all night.
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