Travel

Modernity coexists with ancient Rome

The Tiber River flows past Vatican City, with St. Peter's Basilica in the background.
The Tiber River flows past Vatican City, with St. Peter's Basilica in the background. Tampa Bay Times

I wanted to have that Trevi Fountain moment. Okay, maybe not wade into it like Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg did in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, but turn my back to the magnificent baroque fountain and toss in some euros for good luck.

Like in Roman Holiday. Three Coins in the Fountain and all that jazz.

But in this ancient city, where ruins await you at every turn, modernity butts up against antiquity, and what you see on the silver screen is not exactly what you see in person.

The scrum of tourists is tremendous at one of the world’s most famous fountains. Finished in 1762, the Trevi is situated at the end of the aqueduct built in 19 B.C., and remains a testament to the important role of water in the city’s history. It is a glorious site.

In five days in Rome last May, I visited the Trevi Fountain three times, morning, noon and late, late night. There was never a moment where it wasn’t ringed by people. Finding a clear spot to chuck my euros from was difficult. I did manage to fling a few from farther away, hoping all the while not to hit someone in the head.

Buying a cheap scarf or a green blob of slime, the silly wares of hawkers in every European city, was an easier proposition. Or shoe shopping. Or gelato buying. The city has grown up around the Trevi, and along with that the trappings of the contemporary la dolce vita. Get your Pope Benedict XVI bobbleheads here.

Today, I feel lucky. Just two months after my visit, restoration work began on the fountain thanks to a $3 million boost from the designer Fendi. Until next summer, it will mostly be obscured, and only a small makeshift pond is available for coin-tossing.

When in Rome, be prepared for scaffolding.

ANCIENT RAMBLES

Rome is in a constant state of restoration. If you have your heart set on a photo in front of the Colosseum, be prepared to move around a bit to get a clear shot. Likewise at the Pantheon or any ruins you come across. That’s the amazing thing about Rome. Tackle it on foot in sturdy shoes if you can and you’ll get the full sweep of its history.

Walk past a modern — well relatively modern — apartment building and a set of Doric (or Ionic or Corinthian) columns rises from a hole in the ground, surrounded by fences and tourists toting maps. Imagine looking out at that from your bedroom window.

Again, the contemporary intrudes on the past. When I was there, the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure was setting up its staging area in the field of Circus Maximus, the ancient Roman chariot racing stadium. Another kind of competition, for sure.

There are some 900 churches in Rome, and with Vatican City just across the Tiber River, pilgrims come from all over the world to pay their respects. Many hope for a glimpse of the pope in a window high above St. Peter’s Square, or they sit on folding chairs for his Wednesday public address.

It’s not just Catholics who wait in long lines to get into the Vatican Museums, their ultimate goal Michelangelo’s masterpiece on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Art buffs, architecture lovers and students studying abroad are among the tourists that cram into the sacred buildings.

This was my second visit to the Vatican, both times on a ticket I purchased in advance. I highly recommend this because the wait to get in can be hours long if you arrive sans ticket. Even then, it’s a hectic scene inside.

A guided tour helped hit the highlights, but you could spend a week in the Vatican and not see it all.

The Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica are important stops. But there are other churches to duck into for a more peaceful experience.

MODERN PLEASURES

My base for this trip was the Infinity Hotel near the Spanish Steps, and one of the first places I sat down at after arriving was a restaurant called Life, also on Via della Vite. As at so many restaurants in Rome, there is attractive outdoor seating, with space heaters that chase the chill in the evening.

You must experience the outdoor cafe life, along with the thrill of a Vespa cutting the corner so close you think it might take your feet with it.

In this part of the city, most menus come in English and Italian, and this one had me at burrata, oozy fresh mozzarella cheese, often eaten as an appetizer. It was delivered warm, enveloped with an impossibly thin crispy dough and served with asparagus and skinny slices of Patanegra ham. A glass of Brunello di Montalcino accompanied. Forget the Trevi Fountain, I thought, this was la dolce vita.

The lanes that lead to the Spanish Steps are lined with lovely shops, their windows showing off the latest styles and sky-high price tags. You’ll recognize the names from the Red Carpet — Armani, Hugo Boss, Prada, Yves St. Laurent, Dolce & Gabbana, Dior, Fendi, Ferragamo, Hermes and many more. I was buzzed into the extravagant Bulgari watch shop, and then felt like a bit of a fraud when the saleswoman asked what I was looking for. Uh, a Lotto win?

There are plenty of affordable boutiques to cruise in the same area. A pair of men’s Italian shoes, all leather, can be found at one of the many shoe stores for about $100. I bought several pairs of leather gloves, one even polka-dotted, for less than $40. Nice Christmas gifts.

Need a rest from walking and shopping?

There’s a gelateria on nearly every corner, and I fell in love with stracciatella, the creamy vanilla mix laced with streaks of chocolate. Sort of like chocolate chip ice cream, but not as chunky.

NAMING FAVORITES

I marveled at the inside of the Colosseum, the Roman amphitheater whose exterior is among the most recognized sites in the world. The inside, however, is a strange warren of rooms and history. It’s sort of like an overgrown doll house, spied from above. A cross-section of what was.

Early in the day, the crowds were thinner, and from the Colosseum I moved along past the triumphal arches of Titus and Constantine, the latter of which was covered in a web of restoration work. (At this point, I thought the heck with the lottery, I should invest in a European scaffolding company.)

Past the arches is the Roman Forum, the lengthy plaza flanked by the ruins of the ancient bustling city. A stiff breeze ruffled the spring flowers, most of them brilliant yellow. Every now and then, I came across a concrete stump to use as a perch. There I sat and imagined the toga-clad citizenry doing their daily business in the shadow of the day’s modern and opulent buildings. The crowd would surely part for a visiting emperor, much like it would today if a Kardashian happened by.

I had those same thoughts in the Pantheon on the beautiful Piazza della Rotondo. It’s not as old as the Colosseum and Forum, built in 126 A.D., but it is so well preserved you might think it’s a reconstruction. You feel the past keenly in Rome, but the mood is quickly broken.

Someone walked by me in a Florida State University T-shirt, and yet another proclaimed allegiance to the Knights of University of Central Florida.

BACK TO CHURCH

A person could spend weeks in Rome and not uncover all of its treasures. Souvenirs are the primary debris of travel, but I like to remember moments. I collect many of them when I slip into a church at midday and sit in a pew, usually by myself.

One afternoon I found myself wandering the Villa del Corso, behind me the way to the Colosseum and in front of me, the Piazza del Popolo. The angled busy street was my touchstone. No matter how far I walked, I knew I was close to home base when I found it.

The doors to Chiesa di Gesu e Maria (Church of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary) were open, and I stepped in. The graying walls outside hardly foretold the glory within. An ornate altar soared to the vaulted ceiling. Every bit of the church was covered with paintings, frescoes and sculpture.

Unlike many places in Rome, it was virtually free of tourists. In fact, on one visit there — I made two — I was the sole person in the pews. I lit a candle for lost loved ones, as I do at every European church I visit.

And sat, and contemplated this city and its past.

Here is where I left a few euros, not tossed over my shoulder but plunked in the tin donation box. A sweetness of a different sort.

Going to Rome

Getting there: Unless you’re lucky or wily, it’s difficult to get to Europe for anything less than about $1,000 these days, and $1,200 is more the norm. Yes, you’ll find specials now and then, and if you book through one of the mega online companies (Expedia, Travelocity, Booking) you can put together flights and hotels less expensively than booking separately. Watch the flight times, though. You’ll likely be leaving early in the morning or taking an overnight flight.

WHERE TO STAY

Hotel prices vary widely through the year, as do the weather and crowds. Summer is high season, and winter the low.

We stayed at the Infinity Hotel (Via della Vite 14; infinityhotel.it) near the Spanish Steps, a prime shopping area with well-known designer shops and smaller, independent boutiques. Great for window shopping. We could also walk to a lot of sites from here, including the Colosseum (about 1.5 miles away), the Trevi Fountain (less than half a mile away) and the Pantheon (about 1 mile away).

We had a triple and paid about $350 a night in May, and that included breakfast. A check at Booking.com turns up a four-night stay for two in January 2015 ranging from $412 to $731. In April, that four-night stay for two jumps to $1,300.

GETTING AROUND

There are two metro underground lines and lots of buses. Cabs are available on major roads and at taxi stands.

To get the lay of the land, take a half-day bus tour that will whiz you by the major sites. I like to do this my first time in a big city to get oriented and also to make note of where I want to return.

There are many tours, and you will find information about them at your hotel or at one of the kiosks near the major tourist areas. Tickets will be about $30 for adults. Research them online, starting with hop-on-hop-off-bus.com. Advance tickets for Vatican tours are also available through many sources online, including viator.com.

A three-day ($45) or two-day ($35) Roma Pass provides limited admission to city and national museums, including the Colosseum, and public transportation. Is it worth it for your family? Maybe not if you have children younger than 18 because they are admitted free to museums. Children 11 and younger ride public transportation for free. For more information, visit romapass.it. See reviews at tripadvisor.com.

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