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Highlights Of Rome

(May 2001)

It was once said that all roads lead to Rome since much of the civilized world was once ruled from there. It's easy to understand, even some 2,754 years after its birth, why Rome is so mesmerizing. It had been some time since I last set foot in the Eternal City, and what a difference ten years can make! If you haven't been to Rome lately, you're in for a pleasant surprise. Thanks to millions of dollars allocated by the Italian government for the Jubilee, the city has been revitalized. Rome is glowing again now that centuries of grime have been sandblasted off nearly every monument and palazzo. The city is not only cleaner, but it is also much safer. Unlike on my last visit, there were no gypsies begging or flagrantly trying to pick pockets. This is due to a highly visible police presence now on the streets and at all the major tourist sites.

La Dolce Vita

Rome is a timeless city, the city of la dolce vita (the sweet life). There's no place else with so many artistic monuments. From the Sistine Chapel to the Colosseum, Rome is full of culture and historic eye-candy. Even with its ancient roots, Rome is very much a modern city, and it manages to blend the two well. The city's layout easily lends itself to walking tours, and these are really the best way to see and understand Rome's vast history. Our walking tour began at one of the most beloved monuments in all of Rome.

Pantheon

The Pantheon is an amazing structure which was built between A.D. 118 and 125 and which is still standing, not as just a column or an arch, but in its full glory. Nobody knows who constructed it, though the world's greatest architects, Michelangelo among them, have studied its famous coffered dome. The dome is 144 feet in diameter with a 27-foot oculus in the center to let light in. As the sun moves, striking patterns of light illuminate the walls and floors of granite and marble. The Pantheon is actually a church, Santa Maria of the Martyrs to be exact. Pantheon is a Greek word meaning to honor all Gods. It was here that Caesar Augustus gave thanks to the gods for the defeat of Cleopatra, and it is also where the great artist Raphael was buried in 1520. After our mesmerizing tour of the Pantheon, we walked several blocks to our next stop, the Fontana di Trevi.

Trevi Fountain Palazzo del Quirinale

Rome has approximately 4,000 fountains, but none is as famous as the Trevi Fountain, or Fontana di Trevi. This fountain was made famous in the films Three Coins in the Fountain and Roman Holiday. Built in 1762, the Trevi Fountain (trevi means three crossroads is an astonishing baroque facade of white stone depicting the sea-god Oceanus and his tritons.

No visit to Rome would be complete without tossing a coin into this famous fountain. Stand with your back to the fountain, and make the toss with your right hand over your left shoulder. Toss one coin if your wish is to return to Rome. Toss two coins if your wish is to meet the love of your life. And if you've met already the love of your life, and it isn't quite working out well, toss three coins to be free.

After our coin tossing, we followed our guide through labyrinth-like streets where many historic and religious events have taken place. Today they are lined with gift shops, fruit stands, restaurants, and coffee bars. While you don't need to worry about chariots, you do need to worry about small cars and vespas (motor scooters) that come too close for comfort. Italians are fearless drivers all the more reason to get out of the way.

Just a few blocks from the Trevi Fountain, we found ourselves at our next monument, located on Quirinal Hill, the highest of the seven ancient hills in Rome. The Monte Quirnale, also known as the Palazzo del Quirinale, was once the home of popes and kings, and today is used as the residence of the Italian president. You can view the changing of the guard ceremonies daily at 4 p.m.

Piazza Venizia, Vittoriano Monument, Campidoglio

Dodging the maniacal Roman traffic around Quirinal Hill, we walked several blocks to set our sights upon the Piazza Venizia, which is the geographic center of Rome. Benito Mussolini made his fervent speeches from the balcony here. It now overlooks a small garden of flowers and Rome's crazy traffic. Facing the same piazza is an enormous white marble building called the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II. This impressive white marble edifice is made up of massive columns and is topped on either end by triumphant chariots. Completed in 1911, the monument is a tribute to the first king of Italy' today the structure houses the tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Hidden behind this massive monument is the Piazza Campidoglio, which was designed by Michelangelo. The Campidoglio (capitol) has been the center of Rome for more than two millennia. Ancient Romans came here to make offerings at the Temple of Jupiter' modern Romans come here to make offerings to the Santo Bambino, and, as on the day we were there, to protest corrupt city government. A few steps from the Campidoglio courtyard is Palantine Hill, which was once home to several Roman Caesars. From this vantage point, we were now overlooking the most anticipated part of our tour - the Forum and Colosseum.

Forum &' Colosseum

The Forum is an extraordinary collection of temples, palaces, squares, arches, and columns. This area is ground zero for visitors interested in the ancient world. The Romans were master builders, and the fact that so many ruins are left is a testament to their building expertise. Meander along the original paving stones among the fallen columns. Use your imagination (or watch the movie Gladiator), and you will sense the glory that once was. Go inside Capitoline Hall, site of the city's first and holiest temples. Walk under the Arch of Constantine, touch Trajan's Column, and marvel at the Temple of Venus and Rome and at the tremendous white Arch of Titus. As wonderful as these monuments are, they stand in the shadow of the immense Colosseum.

Ancient Rome's most famous monument stands 161 feet high and seated 55,000 spectators in its heyday. As we walked around the Colosseum, I could almost hear the roar of the crowd watching gladiators battle one another or exotic beasts brought from Africa. For the ultimate Kodak (R) moment, men dressed in Roman garb stand on podiums by the gate and wait for tourists to pay to have their pictures taken with them. A word of caution here: Do not attempt to snap a picture without paying them. I watched one angry “'Rocky-esque”' gladiator chase two Dutch tourists for non-payment.

To get all those gladiator fantasies out of your system go inside and tour the two levels that are open to the public. You'll get the ultimate aerobic workout as you climb steep stairways to view the architecture below. The understructure of cement and brick is exposed, but it does not take much imagination to visualize the grandeur this building once possessed. The wooden floor has long since rotted away, revealing the passages, dressing rooms, and animal pits under the stage. Much of the marble that made up the interior has been recycled into the city's other structures.

Spanish Steps

After our walking tour ended, we boarded a bus for a short ride to the Scalinata Di Spagna (Spanish Steps). One of the prettiest and liveliest places in Rome, this elegant staircase cascades down one of Rome's famous seven hills. The flight of 137 steps was built in the 18th Century to connect the piazza with the church of Trinità dei Monti and the Pincio Hill. In the piazza at the top stands one of the many obelisks the Romans pilfered from the war with Egypt. At the bottom of the steps, tourists and Romans alike congregate at the Piazza Di Spagna, where the ingenious Fountain of the Leaking Boat spouts water while it sinks. Our tour ended, and we had several hours to experience non-scheduled wanderlust.

Roaming Rome

I found myself wandering across from the Spanish steps to Rome's fashionable boutique district on the Via Condotti. Prices in these shops are by no means cheap, but they are considerably lower than you would pay in other countries, particularly if you get a tax refund. I managed to find myself a gorgeous silk scarf at the famous store Roland's.

After the touring, shopping, and dodging of traffic, it was time to relax and have a leisurely lunch. One word of advice—'avoid any restaurant that has menus in four languages posted outside. Authentic Italian cuisine is a universal language that needs no translation. On a cobblestone street, I found myself a quaint trattoria with outdoor tables shaded by umbrellas. I ordered pizza bianca (white pizza) with rucola e bresaola (salad with cured beef covered by mozzarella) and a glass of Chianti. It was pure heaven. As I pondered my magnificent day in Rome, I found that sometimes it's necessary to just linger. After all, having ample time to savor your surroundings is truly living la dolce vita.

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