Back in the summer of 64 (no, not the one when the Beatles invaded the U.S. and Mary Poppins and Zorba the Greek danced their way through movie theaters,) a great fire burned for over six days and nearly destroyed all of Rome. So tells us the Roman historian Tacitus in The Annals of Imperial Rome. A few years back, I and my friend Dave, became pilgrims in the eternal city, crisscrossing it from one end to the other. In late September I experienced a bit of what those poor masses must have felt; at the end of three days rambling through Rome my feet were blazing.
Lucky for us we were willing modern-day tourists and not scapegoats of the mercurial and tyrannical Emperor Nero. He, needing someone to blame for the destruction, found handy a new up and coming religious sect: the Christians. Just imagine yourself thought a tasty snack to be tossed to the dogs, lamp oil to illuminate his gardens at night or the ideal crucifixion ornament for the local forum or Coliseum. I doubt you would feel like breaking into song.
Anyway, being tourists in the twenty-first century meant we did not end up singing (like a character in Monty Python‘s Life of Brian) the immortal and uplifting song, Always look on the bright side of life while we hung out on a cross, roasting to a crisp on one of Rome’s seven hills.
We started out with an energetic bounce in our step, determined to walk and see the sights, morning, noon and night.
We climbed up the curving Spanish Steps and down the broad, sloping stairs from Capitoline Hill.
We peeked into windows, courtyards and gated entryways as we wound our way through narrow back alleys and broad streets like the Via Nazionale. In one shop Dave investigated the possibility of riding a wooden motorcycle. I paused to watch children play.
I eavesdropped on conversations as we stood in line to tour the Vatican. There I heard English, Russian and German spoken. We were a well-behaved, meek little flock of sheep, following our guide through the Vatican City’s museums and Saint Peter’s. Often we simply stood, having been struck silent as we tried to take in ornate crypts, altars and works of art masterminded by the likes of Michelangelo, Titian and Raphael.
The sheer amount of art contained in one church alone can leave you overwhelmed by the relentless onslaught of beauty. After a few hours of shuffling from painting to painting to sculpture to urn to mosaic I needed to head outdoors. Fortunately Rome also has an abundance of small, green city parks and tiny piazzas. There we recharged by listening to the sounds of water tinkling in fountains, pigeons cooing or watching lovers smooch.
Indoors or out, Rome is a feast for the senses.
Not far from the Colosseum is the Forum. In a foolish attempt to take in all the tiny figures of ancient soldiers, carts and oxen on the spiral friezes on Trajan’s Column (it depicts his conquests in Dacia, regions of modern Romania) I strained not only my eyes but almost locked my neck in place.
I was saved from a permanent tilt to my head by the presence of a Gelato shop not far from the Forum. I don’t know about you but I find it impossible to look up and lick one of those sweet and icy lemon, pistachio, and strawberry gelato cones. Actually, I believe it was a daily dose of drippy decadence that proved the perfect antidote for pain in the neck due to monument gazing.
Just a few steps farther a throng of people had gathered at the base of the Victor Emmanuel monument. Curious, Dave and I shouldered our way through. Two gladiators were busy showing off their prowess to young, pretty women. One thrust and lunged at the giggling geese with a sword (no doubt it was made in China.) The other flexed his muscles. He lifted one of the shrieking girls over his shoulder, brought her down to hug her against his chest, and stole a quick kiss.
Lucky guys! Instead of their lives having to depend on the fickle disposition of blood thirsty crowds or the whims of an emperor they could end their torture merely by saying “cheese” (or is it Formaggio?) And instead of earning the dubious reward of a drawn-out death by battling each other, lions, tigers or bears (oh my), a mere fleecing of the audience cleared an easy few Euros.
After our swordsmen ended their mock performance we joined others to climb over the white marble steps to crawl, ant-like over the huge monument. The locals call it (among other things) “the wedding cake.” It was built in tribute to Victor Emmanual. After his defeat of the papal army, he, in 1861 became head of the new Kingdom of Italy, with him proclaimed as king.
At the top, as I devoured the sights of Rome spread out like a visual banquet below me, I contemplated the possibility of shipping a boatload of monuments back to Washington, D.C., a city that, I’m sure you know, is woefully sparse in that department.
For touring Rome I thought I had prepared well by packing sturdy, practical and comfortable shoes: a relatively new pair of brown leather Birkenstock sandals, sneakers used often for long walks at home, and for dressier occasions, black Mary Jane’s. None were a match for Rome’s marble steps, asphalt paved roads or the romantic and innocent looking yet lethal cobblestones.
And yet, everywhere I looked, there were others that navigated in a seemingly effortless way, looking for all the world, like the possibility of twisted ankles, blisters, stubbed toes and burning feet, did not really exist. I am not quite sure what made me start to pay attention to the footwear of others, particularly women. Maybe, as my feet started aching on day two, I looked for company in my misery, hoping for a sort of solidarity in my pain. It always seems much more bearable when you’re not the only one moaning and groaning about something bad happening to you.
But what did I see instead? Manicured, unblemished, tanned feet, not a callous in sight, sporting flimsy, thin strapped sandals walking along the same cobblestones as I.
So here’s my final word of warning. A popular Italian proverb proclaims Tutte le strade portano a Roma. If it’s true that,” all roads lead to Rome” and your particular journey of life brings you to this fair place, be prepared! Visiting Rome, especially on foot, may leave you a little worse for the wear; you just might have to resort to romping in a few of the many fountains that grace La Cittā Eterna. But if you’re lucky enough to visit Rome the price is worth any discomfort. Besides, sore feet is infinitely better than darting between burning buildings, dodging falling timbers and feeling fire singe your nose hairs while flames lick your toes. Don’t you agree?
Have you been to Rome? If so, what were some of your most memorable moments?