“I only know two words in Italian – Buongiorno and Grazie”, I crib to my hosts in Rome. “I want to know more”. Pat comes the reply “You already know the language! The rest is just gestures!” With this assurance I did not attempt to learn the language and thankfully did not need to use any more than these two words in a city that speaks English quite widely and gestures quite wildly.
Indeed, if anyone can beat us Indians in gestures, its the Italians.
Of course its not just the way people talk that is common to both lands: History seamlessly interspersed with modern life, the nation’s obsession with food, the scant regard for traffic rules…Rome felt very much like any Indian city and yet it was quintessentially European. When I say European, it again is so varied that in my three visits so far with a fair amount of time spent in various countries, I cannot help notice how vastly different each place is from the other. Yet there is one thing that is common, at least to some parts of Europe and that is the influence of the Renaissance. What better place can you see it in all its majesty than Italy, the country that is widely known as the birthplace of the renaissance? If it were the emperors and kings that patronized the arts and architecture in India, it was the large banking families of the Medici and the church that promoted and encouraged the renaissance art in Florence, the art capital of Italy and the central Papal states including Rome.
I am no expert in art. I only look at a piece of architecture, painting or sculpture and if it moves me, I like it and there was enough to keep me awed for my week in Rome. What was most interesting was the two faces Rome offered. On one hand are the ruins of a time that once was. An era that shouts grandeur, opulence and dominion. The colosseum, the stage of the gladiatorial scenes, the pantheon, a temple for the pagan gods of the ancient Romans and such. On the other hand are throwbacks to the influence of Christianity with baroque churches, frescoes with scenes from the Bible inside the multitude of churches and the Vatican of course. All this with the modern cafes, chic restaurants and a vibrant population make Rome one of the most popular and culturally rich cities in the world.
As with most popular tourist destinations, one can expect droves of crowds in all the major sites. I visited Rome when the tourist season was only just opening up and yet I found myself in the midst of selfie sticks in the colosseum. I hardly found a spot to imagine what it must have been like to cheer a gladiator or to imagine being one myself. To think what it must be like in August under the sweltering mediterranean heat! A better alternative in my opinion is to visit the Amphitheatre in Pompeii, an easy day trip from Rome (I did mine with a tour group called Walks of Italy), which is not only part of a city that was destroyed by the volcanic eruption of the Vesuvius, thus offering much more besides just a visit to an amphitheatre, but also predates the colosseum. Pompeii offers a glimpse into the lives of people captured in a tragic moment, lives lived by people centuries ago, astonishingly not very different from ours today. I tried to draw analogies with the ancient city of Dwaraka. I hope we discover it some day.
Another crowded must-visit place is the St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican for the sheer architectural brilliance. The best way to beat the crowds I learnt from my hosts, is by visiting the Vatican museums early morning, mid week and aim to enter the Basilica during lunch. I did have a good visit to the museums and the Basilica with not much of a crowd. Regardless, its quite difficult to visit any of these places without expecting crowds and one needs to have a bit of a luxury with time. My memorable moments of people watching despite the crowds was in the Piazza Navona. The Piazza or square is so big that the crowds never felt too much. Gelato in hand, street music in the background, watching people getting themselves portrayed, I spent three consecutive evenings here after long tiring walks through the hills of Rome.
No write up about Italy is complete without mentioning the food. Italy is a gastronomical delight. Wait, that’s for someone who indulges in sea food and wine. I was told by many that I was missing out on the best experiences in Italy by being a vegetarian and a teetotaler. Nevertheless, I did indulge in the famous Tiramisu and plenty of Pasta. I loved the Italian coffee and the fresh cheese as well. I do have to confess though, pizza simply tastes better in India.
A week in Rome offers one a chance to explore the city at one’s own pace and going beyond the usual places to be ticked off to be “counted” to have visited the city. I even had someone telling me that Rome is very “plasticky” and has had excellent “PR because of all the movies”. That is certainly not true. The main sights are drawing crowds for a reason. They are spectacular indeed and live up to all the expectations. At the same time, Rome is not just these sights. Talking to locals, walking aimlessly on any cobblestoned streets one fancies and not seeing Rome in just 2 days are what will ensure a very memorable trip to the eternal city. Finally, drop a coin in the Trevi, even with all the elbowing with the crowds… you will want to come back.