Roman Holiday

Saturday, April 09, 2011 Road Junkies 0 Comments

3 MONTHS IN EUROPE, Days 38-40: 
Rome, Italy. 
On Thursday morning (day 38) in Rome, we experienced something we have been missing for the last 38 days.  We laundered our clothes with a self-service washing machine and even a tumble dryer.  It was thrilling!

The second marvel we saw in Rome—infinitely more impressive—was St. Peter's Basilica (pictured above).   One of the world's most famous houses of worship, the basilica isn't really in Rome but in the independent country of Vatican City, an enclave within Rome which was conveniently located a quarter mile from our apartment.  We expected to wait in a long line to enter this exemplar of Renaissance architecture, but on a random April Tuesday, the queue was moderate and moving, so we joined in.
After a perfunctory security check, we entered the cathedral situated at the reputed site of the burial of St. Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ and first bishop of Rome.  What struck us first was the scale of the building.  Everything about this site, holy to Roman Catholics worldwide, is supersized—from the columns to the statues to the ceiling, which towers above your head.  Beneath the massive dome, one of the world's largest, there is a 450-ft span from the top to the floor.
A small section of the interior
The basilica has the largest interior of any church in the world and will hold up to 60,000 people.  Taking 120 years to build, the church was completed in 1626 and contains works by some of the greatest Renaissance artists, including Michelangelo, Bernini, Botticello and others.  The interior is lavishly decorated with gilding, carvings, different types of marble, and other ornamentation.
No surface remains unadorned.
We each paid the €7.00 fee to ride the elevator up a few floors to reach the 340-step staircase leading to the top of the dome.  From there, we had spectacular views of the St. Peter's forecourt and the entire city of Rome.  Well worth the fee and the climb.
View from the dome

Friday found us exploring ancient Rome beginning with a stop at Circus Maximus to search for a letterbox.  As often happens, we didn't really care that we were unable to find the letterbox because the person who hid it there took us to a very interesting place.
Circus Maximus
In ancient Rome, a circus referred to a stadium where large events were held such as chariot races and religious festivals.  As its name suggests, Circus Maximus was the largest venue of its type and would seat 250,000—the greatest seating capacity of any such facility before or since.

Another interesting stop, also prompted by a letterbox, was the "Bocca della Verità" (Mouth of Truth).  Located in the portico of a Paleochristian church, it is an ancient stone mask from the Classical period that represents a river god with an open mouth, wide eyes and a flowing mane of hair.
Mouth of Truth
According to ancient legend, if a liar puts their hand inside its mouth, they will lose it.  In a memorable scene from the film Roman Holiday (1953), Gregory Peck, in front of a terrified Audrey Hepburn, daringly challenges the mask by putting his hand inside its mouth.  Tourists were lined up for the opportunity to try the same.  Fortunately, we did not see anyone withdraw a bloody stump from the mask.
Of course, we had to visit Capitoline Hill and the ancient ruins of the Forum and the Roman Colosseum.  We ended the day with a stop at Trevi Fountain and the nearby Spanish Steps, all iconic sites we have heard and read about and seen in films all our lives.  It was a real thrill to see them in person.
Roman Forum
Trevi Fountain
Spanish Steps
On Saturday, our last day in the city, we started the day with some travel planning as we prepared to depart from Italy and enter France the following day.  Another priority for the day was planting a letterbox in Rome.  We decided on Villa Borghese Park.  A Metro ride took us there, where we found a suitable spot and left our little treasure.
Villa Borghese Park
Our planting adventure went so well that we decided to reward ourselves with a visit to Borghese Gallery, which happened to have free admission that Saturday.  The primarily modern art collection was excellent, and we enjoyed the groupings of exhibits by subject matter rather than artist (e.g., paintings and sculptures with horses in the same room).

Since it was our last day, we had to try to squeeze in a visit to the Pantheon, the Roman temple to all the gods, which later became a Roman Catholic church.  Completed in the year 125, the Pantheon is one of the best preserved of all ancient Roman structures, mainly because it has been in continuous use over its lifespan.
The Pantheon
There's still so much to see in Rome that we hope to make it back for another visit before too long,  But for now, our Italian sojourn is over.  Tomorrow we'll fly to Nice and begin exploring France.