Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Italy Motorcycle Diary: 3. Rome

                I had my first espresso of the trip at the Fiumicino airport, sipping it as I watched a guy in his early 30s getting searched by cops with a German Shepherd. From the airport I took the train to Roma Termini, then Tram Eight to the area near the Pantheon. The tram was a light-rail car, a bit tricky to find from the Termini for a foreigner like me, but asking for directions gave me the chance to start trying out my newly learned Italian. Soon enough I was standing in the crowded Tram Eight, sweating profusely and hauling far more gear than the diverse group of commuters who were staring at me. I had a large, wheeled, black duffel bag that had most of my things, and a smaller duffel bag that contained my helmet and boots. My daypack, bulging and overstuffed, rested heavily on my back like a wet towel.
                From the tram stop I walked a few blocks to the Pantheon plaza, where I met my friend Paul.
We’d booked two nights at the Albergo del Sole Al Pantheon. As the name suggests, it’s right next to the ancient Pantheon. We were on the third floor and spent a decent amount of time staring out the window at the legendary building and the hundreds of people flowing in and out of the plaza from the side streets and alleys. It advertises itself as “the oldest hotel in Rome from 1467.” It’s not too expensive or fancy, but the doors have nameplates that let you know some of the famous people who have shared the rooms, including some who did so centuries ago. It has a cozy breakfast room. I could have stayed there for a month.
It's never too warm for espresso
                Jet lag struck hard the first day. Zombification set in as I tried to stay awake. No amount of espresso would help. We took a quick walk and saw the “turtle-boys fountain,” then walked around the outside of the Altare della Patria, a big, 17th century monument right off one of the main drags.
We returned to the Pantheon plaza and I fell asleep on one of the low walls that surround the ancient temple. Paul, a veteran world traveler, napped for a couple of hours in the room. I’d be up all night if I did that, I worried. Later, I felt better and we walked over to Trastavere, the fabulous, somewhat grungier neighborhood on the west bank of the Tiber river. We hung out on the steps of Piazza di Santa Maria, trying to guess tourists from locals and admiring the “pre-medieval” Basilica of Our Lady in Trastavere, a little church that’s been around since the year 350. We had so much fun sitting there that I made three trips to the nearby store for more beer. After it got dark we found a tiny eatery with outdoor seating on a narrow road. The bigger the vehicle that went by, the bigger the thrill.
                On Day Two we went to St. Peter’s Basilica. I’ll never forget turning a corner and catching my first glimpse of it. Incredibile! Amy and I skipped it in ’98, a fact that plagued me for years when I’d tell people we went to Italy. “How was the Vatican?” they’d say. I got used to the look of surprise when I’d answer that we didn’t go.
I offered to buy Paul several heavy books...
                Problem solved. Paul and I took the very long spiral staircase to a mosaic-filled viewing area of the church’s gilded interior. We had drinks at the cafĂ© on the roof, gazed down at the green gardens and office buildings for high-ranking prelates. When we came back down the sun was high and the line for the entrance five times as long. Going up that un-air-conditioned staircase had been like ascending through a circle of hell, and we had arrived first thing in the morning. We felt sorry for the people who came after us.
Then Paul took off for a different part of Rome, since he’d been to the Vatican museums before. I toured half of the museums, which were also without A/C, crowded, and sweltering. It was standing room only in the Sistine Chapel as everyone took a moment to appreciate its cooling system and the paintings on the ceiling. Hilariously, security guards would yell “SHHHHH!” every few minutes when the crowd noise grew to disrespectful proportions.
                I walked back toward the hotel past Hadrian’s Masoleum/Castel Sant’Angelo, a magnificent structure at the end of one bridge over the Tiber, and into the neighborhood on the way, where I stopped at a barber shop and got a haircut. The barber was a kid in his 20s who said he liked Americans. He spoke a little English and I took the opportunity to practice Italian. He explained that his father, a women’s hairstylist, owned a classic sports car from the 70s, an Opel GT, and belonged to a club of other GT owners. He proudly showed me photos of his dad’s dark-blue “baby Corvette.”
                After a short rest at the albergo, Paul and I headed out for the night tour of the Coloseum. We had a requisite pre-tour beer and snack session, and while in line at the Coloseum we chatted with a wonderful group of retired teachers. The tour guide was informative and fun – a middle-aged woman in her 40s or so who kept complaining that she didn’t speak English very well, which was nonsense. We strolled over to the pop-up bars on the banks of the Tiber, where I definitely should not have had more beer. I was exhausted from the time change and our hectic schedule and felt like I was going to pass out. I struggled to stay moving on the slog back to our room.

Next: Final Prep

The American teachers we met at the Colosseum

Altare della Patria

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