Wednesday, February 10, 2010

hangin with the pope..

Throw a stone and follow its destination. Chances are that you are at a world famous colossal monument that speaks of the grandeur of another era.  To experience Rome is to be swept away by the Colosseum, to walk down cobblestoned paths from fairy tales and eat the best pizza there is.


When we landed in the airport, taxi drivers rushed at us hoping to cheat clueless foreigners. This was not the only thing that reminded me of India .We took the shuttle to the centre of the town in an overheated bus. My swiss companion complained about how it was too hot and that Italians considered it cold . At 8 degrees, much warmer than Switzerland my previous destination, I was happy as can be.



Rome can make you feel like you are in a 70's movie with fiats or fiat like cars dominating the traffic space... Sometimes, its History modernity conundrum and it's somewhat chaotic nature reminded me of Bombay.

 But these are not the most important things about Rome. The most important thing is that the city is a living museum , each spot sprouting some evidence of its dramatic History.


On day one, we went to Vatican City and were amazed by its sheer size. The St Peter's Basilica is an impressive structure with a beautiful imposing dome that is free to enter but unfortunately the queue was too long for our taste. We decided instead to pay fifteen Euro and enter the museum and  see the Sistine chapel instead . 


In the hallway , the roof was spectacularly painted where each square foot was a master piece in itself.  Hungry for the grandeur  that Rome had so far pampered us with , we couldn't imagine what the Sistine chapel would be if an ordinary hallway was this grand.

We walked past sophisticated maps and  paintings  to enter  a silent room with about a hundred people staring at the ceiling in silence interrupted only by the guards saying in that delightful Italian accent '' no phoo ooo tooo'''.

The curtains look real , Jesus looks alive , and books jut out from the ceiling, the story of creation is not merely drawn, it unfolds . The Sistine Chapel is human genius to its highest extent. Is it painting or sculpture or just magic?



We left the Vatican and went to the centre of town to see the gorgeous Trevi Fountain whose Italian name is more evocative of its beauty somehow – Fontana Di Trevi. There were Bangladeshi photographers all over persuading tourists to use their services and this too reminded me of Indian monuments.


The Pantheon , for all its greatness is unlit at night because believe me Rome has way too many monuments for them to be able to light up all of them at night. Lit or not , The Pantheon is a massive magnificent structure. Today the Pantheon functions as a Church.


Colloseum  , the construction of which started in 69AD is designed to hold 50,000 people. It's almost surreal to stand there and imagine all the glory and brutality it's walls have witnessed over 2000 years.

Apart from History, food is a big reason to go to Rome.  However, if you don't scratch below the surface , you will be disappointed.

Restaurants are jaded and in most you won't find the ''cooked with passion by a sweet Italian mama''  food that you are looking for. Many of them have ''tourist menus''.  If you have the patience to drift off the well trodden tourist paths and veer off to where the Romans eat, I promise you that you'll remember the meals forever. Research and ask the locals.

 Trastevere on the other side of River Tiber is a working class neighbourhood now made fashionable by the new restaurants and the tourists who throng there for the '' real Italian experience''. A local we chatted with told us that the best pizzas in Rome are to be had at Dar Poeta (The Poet). WE spent about 40 minutes looking . With a map in hand and very little linguistic skills except  our  stock basket of twenty useful words, we made our way through narrow cobble stoned paths lined by charming buildings painted in orange and brown to finally find the restaurant in Via Bologna, a quiet street .

Down to earth in appearance, the place lived up to our expectations.  I had freshly made thin crust pizza with rocket, mozzarella and  pomodoro tomatoes  and it wouldn't be an exaggeration to call it nothing short of ...poetic.  There's lots to try in Italy including creamy gelato, home made pasta , biscotti, pastries and the list goes on.


Everyone wants to learn English evidenced by ads everywhere selling Anglais classes for cheap. Hardly anyone speaks it though. An old woman comes up to me in a clothing store , taps me gently and starts a whole monologue in Italian about the clothes not giving me time to interrupt. Another woman had to intervene and suggest that I, perhaps given my obvious foreign tourist appearance did not speak English .




There are huge hoardings everywhere depicting Michelangelo's 'David' tied to helicopters flying over London. The Italian caption above threatens the exporting of Rome's art if no one went to see it.


Yet , one gets the sense that Rome is so burdened by its past that it has nothing new to offer, no young scene to speak of. It is largely a tourist city. In 2001, the then Deputy Prime Minister started out a project to modernise the city while still retaining its historical character. There is some new architecture , new venues but nothing you'll notice on a short visit.

The last thing we did at Rome was to go to The Forum, We walked near the ruins which are a testament to human ambition , tragedy and ultimately the transience of all things – even great civilizations. I wondered how future humans would react if they found the ruins of New York . Would they piece together the Empire State building and wonder how they built it without robots, would they preserve the head of Liberty in a museum? Would they find it as beautiful as we 21st century humans found Rome?

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