Published: February 7th 2006February 7th 2006
The past few weeks Vienna has been wrapped in a dense winter haze. Not cloudy with clouds you can see, just a homogenously gray sky. This is complemented by a kind of snow, tiny needle-like crystals that sort of swirl in all directions and thus coat tree branches on all sides, which gives the whole landscape an otherworldly feel. Through this I travelled to the airport, and bundled up in fleece hat, gloves, scarf, big coat, ran out to an absurdly small plane (at five foot five I couldn't stand up straight, felt like I'd fallen down the rabbit hole). I watched as the mad patchwork of snowy hills disappeared below us.
Then, only an hour later, I woke up and looked down again. Green and yellow land, rolling hills parcelled into farms by rows of poplar trees. The sky was brilliant, and when we got off the plane this warm breeze swept around us. Everyone shed their coats and grinned like idiots. That a place with sunshine, with laundry DRYING IN THE BREEZE, with flowers and palm trees and cactus, a place where people are still wearing sunglasses and eating gelati in February actually exists, is pretty much pure beauty.
sunshine! my old friend, it's been a while
lounging on the Spanish steps in the afternoon
On the train ride to the city i was sandwiched against a window by a chain-smoking mother with two big gold crucifixes around her neck, and her daughter, both of whom had obscene amounts of luggage, which they packed around our legs and on the seats, and then sat on top of. "Ahh, scusi" the little girl would say everytime she fell off her pile of luggage and into my lap. And I could only giggle. The window was hot from the sunshine, everything was suffused with golden light, "scusi" tumbling out of mouths like the tinkle of a fountain... it was unreal. The sun was really doing things to me. Or maybe it was just Italy... I also could only laugh at the subway, which is the polar opposite of Vienna's. The train pulled up covered in a rainbow of grafitti and completely packed. I didn't think that I could even get in - but then about six people behind me just pushed forward and I heard the doors close behind them... it was the biggest, sweatiest mass of humanity all jammed into one place, much more crowded then the NYC subway at rush-hour, bodies all pressed together, grinning
tomb of the unknown
here I am, climbing up to the roman tomb of the unknown
and saying "scusi" when an elbow is accidentally thrown into the belly of a stranger, it was like a joke that everyone was in on. Ha ha, can you believe how many people we fit in here!? Think we can jam more in!? Ha! Of course we can!
After I checked into my pensione I ran out to the Spanish Steps and laid out in the sunshine because I was fairly certain that if I didn't grab this chance at sunshine, it would be gone! After about an hour, it was - unbelievable - still sunny... and actually not even showing signs of setting anytime soon... so I decided to just take a walk. I was staying in the city center, a maze of narrow cobbled streets, aged orange and yellow buildings, trattorias and pizzerias and boutiques. I made my way over to the Via del Corso, a big shopping drag, and I look up and see at the end of the street this huge columned monument, gleaming white in the sun. (I had no clue what it actually was at the time, but later read it is the Vittorio Emanuele II monument, commemorating Italian unification - which wasn't that
long ago.) I stop to admire/figure out what the heck it is, and then I walk a little further around it and there - at the end of the next street - is something I certainly do recognize, the bloody Colosseum! It is unreal. It is ochre in the beautiful late-afternoon light, with pockets of bright blue sky in the arches. I can practically hear the ancient crowds screaming. To my right are the Forum ruins, and archeaologists are packing up for the day. There are guys dressed up like gladiators milling around, and surely - SURELY - it is hypocritical for me to be so entertained and like them so much when I can't stand all the Mozarts in Vienna, but then I realize why - because, (besides the short skirts and toned legs) they are wearing sandals! And it is so long since i have worn sandals... but seriously, I had no idea how moved I would be by the Forum and the ruins in general. It is amazing and humbling to think that where you are standing, marked now only by a column and worn cobblestones, so many people lived and died and bought vegetables and had
Ruins of the Temple of Saturn. This was built on the Forum as a repository for the standards of the Legion, and also to display the decrees of the Senate.
babies and schemed and philosophized and were convinced that their civilization was and would continue to be the greatest on the face of the planet...
The other ancient site that was very moving was the Via Appia Antica (The Appian Way). Called the "queen of all roads," it is marked with remembrances to roman and early christian greats. Between St. Peter (who fled Rome on this road and had a vision of Christ here), Emperor Commodus's country palace, and the tomb of Cecilia (daughter of Crassus the triumvir), I got a good fix of the Bible, Gladiator and HBO's ROME ... but it was a long time before I made it to the ancient part of the road. It was actually a long time before I made it to any part of the road. Essentially, I thought that I could walk there from a metro station and ended up on the side of a highway in a very industrial neighborhood. Some nice Italians at a gas station gave me (probably excellent) directions, but as they were in Italian, I could neither understand nor remember the complicated instructions. Luckily I ran into a german couple who had, predictably, a very thourough
St. Peter's square and Basilica
The greatest church in Christendom! Embracing me! (architectually at least)
and up-to-date map. They were so nice - I was surprised by how comforting their crisp hochdeutsch accent and calm, collected manner was. They were mentally cataloguing cross-streets and bus stops (we later discover buses go directly there, har har), and fed me interesting tidbits of trivia about the sites around us because, of course, they had thouroughly researched it. Though we still had a very long walk to the ancient part of the Via Appia, we passed it quite pleasantly. Finally we were there, the train station and highways worlds away. It was like when Maximus is walking along that road to his house in Gladiator... the grasses swaying under rows of pinion trees, rich fields and this road stretching off into the distance. I imagine Titus Pullo and Lucius Verinus walking along here joking around, and can almost hear the steps of Roman soldiers, battle-weary and returning home, in the footsteps of my small group. The rocks have been slicked by so many feet and have grooves from hundreds of years of wheels running over the the same spot. The three of us admire these grooves, poking at them with our toes in awe.
So now, because I
could pretty much wax lyrical about everything I saw, I'll cut to the chase and give some highlights:
- Galleria Borghese: my art history class in the flesh (or marble). Walk from Canova's Pauline Banaparte, to Bernini's David, or Apollo and Daphne. Apollo and Daphne is the most amazing piece of art - you can see her toes turning into roots and her hair is just a wild mix of curls and leaves. Depending on where you stand, Apollo's face is either happy (in pursuit) or, damn (from the view where she is clearly becoming a tree). Very cool.
- the pantheon. another turn-the-corner-holy-cow-there-it-is! kinda moment.
- Piazza Navona, a beautiful oblong piazza with lots of artists, flowers and fountains. could spend hours here
- St. Peter's Basilica. Jaw-dropping. Complete with the swiss guard, michaelangelo's Pieta, the smell of incense and mass in italian.
- the Sistine Chappel and Vatican Museum. Again, a surreal experience. Lots of flashbacks to tiny illustrations in my art history text that just don't do justice to the real pieces.
And, I was lucky enough to meet up with my friend Anna, a Roman art historian I met in a german-language course once
upon a time. Besides taking me out for roman pizza with her friends, she also gave me a private tour of the Palazzo Bernini, which is the National Gallery of Ancient Art. Some great paintings stand out in my head (portrait of Henry the VIII, Raphael's La Fornarina and Caravaggio's fabulous Judith and Holofernes), but what really stands out is the history she explained to me and Luca (another friend of hers). The many schools of Caravaggio created because he was on the run after losing his cool and slaying his tennis opponent in Rome... the bitter competition between Bernini and Borromini, ending in the latter's suicide... the machinations of several popes, etc. The very best part of the visit, though, was that she invited Luca and me to lie down on sofas in the middle of the great hall as she led us through the scenes on the ceiling (The Triumph of Divine Providence by Cortona, the whole thing a self-riteous tribute to Pope Urban, the Barberini). This is how ceiling frescos should be viewed! Man, if I could only have had a few moments on my back in the Sistine Chappel...
Last I should mention Trevi Fountain.
Legend holds that if you throw a coin in, you assure yourself another trip to Rome. I think you can guess what I did there :)
There are more photos below