Rome Wasn't Built in a Day (But I Saw It in One)

Rome, Italy--September, 1996 See the historic city of Rome now, and see it inexpensively. But you must hurry. Today's financial news is that the lire--Italy's legal tender--is going up in value. As of September 15, it was valued at more than 1,500 lire to the dollar. Soon it could fall into the low 1,400s--meaning you will need only one bushel basket of banknotes to visit the ancient Roman Forum and the Colosseum instead of two. Tour Introduction

The other day, as a part of my home-grown package tour of the world's great historic sites, I laid out 43,000 lire (around $30) to Carrani Tours for something it bills as--from the Latin--"Tour 2"--hereafter known as the Tour di Boom Shaka-laka.

John According to the Tour di Boom Shaka-laka brochure, the impressive itinerary would include: "Piazza San Bernardo, Moses' Fountain, Piazza della Repubblica with Naiadi's Fountain, Via Nazionale, Piazza Venetia with Memorial to King Victor Emanuel II and the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Capitoline Hill, Panoramic View of the Roman Forum and the Palantine Hill, Imperial Fora, Colosseum (visit inside every day except Wednesday ans [sic] Sunday), Arch of Constantine, Circus Maximus, the Aventine Hill, St. Paul's Gate, Pyramid of Caius Cestius, Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls (visit), the FAO building, the Domus Aurea, Tito's Baths, Church of St. Peter in Chains with the Statue of Moses by Michelangelo (visit), Return to the hotels or to the nearest vicinity according to the traffic.

About 30 other American tourists and I departed on time. We did see the first six sites of interest--and a few more that were supposed to show up later--while clutching the seats of our Carrani tour bus as it zigzagged through Roman traffic. The bus never stopped at the sites, but they were pointed out as we zipped by them--allowing us to try shooting photos through the bus windows.

The Via Nazionale proved most interesting. For those who do not know, that simply means "The National Street" and is so proudly named because it is one of the few in the city wider than a yard to 36 feet and its upkeep is paid for by the national government, not the city of Rome. The national government was paying for its upkeep even as we were using it. Workmen with picks and shovels were diving out of our bus' way like something out of a Three Stooges movie.

Lined by many of our itinerary sites, the Via Nazionale was also the shortest route to the first spot where we were permitted off the bus--the back end of the Capotiline Hill, overlooking the ruins of the ancient Roman Forum.

Along with the other tourists, I charged out the bus door. The tour guide shouted over his shoulder that anyone who could not keep up was to stay on the bus. Stragglers would be left behind. Like Zulus jogging into battle, each tourist bobbing along with his 35mm or video camera, we followed the furled, upraised umbrella of our guide--an uncommonly fit and spry fellow of about 70, bald with a neatly trimmed gray mustache, large round glasses and a distinct professorial air about him.

In clipped, heavily accented English Il Professori explained the Forum's importance in Imperial and Republican Roman life--its place in the valley below being significant as a truce ground for the warring tribes that occupied each of the seven hills "for wish Roma esa none."

Pointing with his umbrella down into the valley littered with broken marble columns, he indicated Julius Caesar may have Bought the Farm at that spot, or maybe it was that spot, "ana now, we mus mova on."

Boom shaka-laka, boom shaka-laka, we jogged down the hill after the bobbing, upraised umbrella. The Polizia (about which more in the future--like after I leave Italy) "insista'd" that the bus move down the hill, so the second battlefield trot was a little longer. But the Colosseum was in sight.

On boarding though, the bus tore off south. "We sava de Colosseum for da last," Il Professori told us. "Es our piece of resistance."

Next, from the moving bus, we scanned the Circus Maximus--now a graded dirt oval in a sloped green park--and a lot of other really interesting ancient stuff . . . I think. Il Professori made much poo-poo of Ben-Hur, but admitted the ancients liked horse racing "so much." One tourist speculated it must have been something like the NASCAR circuit.

From the Circus Maximus, the ride proceeded at its regular good clip until we were allowed off the bus to visit the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls (the Vatican walls, that is). The faithful among us insisted this stop allow for more than a quick genuflect and sign of the cross. Surveying the crowd and gauging the Catholic to Protestant ratio, Il Professori conceded there would be a short stop here.

St. Ranked second in interior size only to St. Peter's at the Vatican, St. Paul's Outside the Walls replaced a basilica built here by the Emperor Constantine atop the tomb of St. Paul the Apostle. Construction began in 386, and it was once adorned with elaborate frescos. A nasty fire in 1823 required the church's rebuilding.

The ceiling is inlaid with solid gold. One altar, donated by a Russian czar--Il Professori wasn't sure which one--is inlaid with lapis lazuli. Mosaics from the late Byzantine Empire period--honestly astounding--highlight the walls. The chains in which St. Paul was said to have once been held while awaiting transport to Rome for trial and martyrdom (Vatican experts have their doubts about their authenticity) are kept here as semi-holy relics.

After a brief, but suitable period for study and reflection, we were led to the church's meditation garden, tended by monks who reside beside the church. Impressive, peaceful, conducive to meditation--especially to failed home gardeners--it could lure the average visitor to spend a half-hour, walking about, studying its colors and the selection of specimens. But not the Boom Shaka-laka tourist. Il Professori briskly led us to a gift shop where little water colors produced by the monks were offered for sale. The sales, Il Professori emphasized many times, go to charity.

Under the circumstances, I did have a journalist's duty to have this "charity proceeds" business verified. Within the resources available to me, I was able to substantiate that a major portion of the proceeds do go to charitable work. The order to which the good brothers belong is among the oldest in the Roman Catholic denomination. Its motto is simple: "Work and Pray." No idle time. They are, however, very modest. Il Professori's sales zeal was--if not exactly embarrassing to them--at cross purposes with vows of humility.

The umbrella was raised in the gift shop, and off we went again. Boom Shaka-laka to the bus and the Colosseum. For many on the bus (most of them frazzled business people and spouses who had been promised a look at Rome), the Big C was the highlight, the very object of the afternoon. As we pulled up beside the ruin, Il Professori gestured with his umbrella and explained, "Polizia do not permita de parking here, so it is to us to get into the Colosseum, have my lecture, then go about the eedeefeece [edifice] for free 15 minootes. The bus she must keep moving. On exit, look for it [pointing with umbrella] this sida da street."

Colosseum Into the Zulu jog, we hit it, boom shaka-laka, boom shaka-laka, into the Colosseum. We heard Il Professori give some conflicting statistics about the building's heyday capacity and "dat schooloors hava determin tru electronic calculation dat de stadium coulda disgorge 55 tousands persons ina 10 minutes." later, I learned the common man's exits there (dignitaries had special doors) were referred to as the "Vomitoria." Hence, I guess, Il Professori's use of the term "disgorge."

Looking back blearily to my undergraduate days and the 101 courses in art appreciation and Western culture that I took, I never recall anyone asking why--or volunteering why--it appears Michelangelo put two rather demonic horns growing from the prophet's head. After another boom shaka-laka into the Church of St. Peter in Chains, we skidded to a stop in front of the Moses statue at the rear right of the church interior, and Il Professori proved his worth (I think). He told us that Michelangelo took as his inspiration the rays of light that Moses' tribe perceived emanating from his brow at some point after he had received the 10 Thou Shalt Nots. The "horns" were his unsuccessful--"butta noble"--attempt to illustrate this phenomena in marble. O.K.

I will say Moses is as strong and animated a piece of sculpture as a person can look on--if they are given a decent chance to do so.

On the way back to central Rome, after our three-hour, 15-minute survey of early Western civilization, our guide had one more duty to perform. He could, he said, deliver us to our hotels or to the spot nearby of our choosing.

Across the road, the Forum is fenced off. A 12,000 lire ticket gets you entry. Tapes in English and tape-players and headphones are available, and you can wander the site as long as you like, stand on the spot where Marc Antony gave his funeral oration for Julius Ceasar and improvise your own. To my amazement, visitors are permitted to stand on some of the old marble slabs to get better views of the site, the reasoning being that the ancient rubble withstood the barbarians and the sack of Rome--it can handle you.

Preservation and archaeological work is going on at the Forum. Visit and feel free to watch the men on the scaffolding as they touch up the ancient columns or the archaeologists as they sift through the layers of earth around some of the original foundations. During my second visit there, a young grad student unearthed some 2,000-year-old chicken bones--the remains of some Roman Senate page's lunch I suppose.

From the Forum it's a 10-minute walk to the Circus Maximus. In its prime it was a massive structure that could seat around a quarter-million people. Today nothing remains of the building, but the site is a free public park and a great place to picnic. You can walk around the dirt track chariot race oval imagining you're Ben-Hur taking a sassy victory lap and giving the emperor the old thumbs up sign.

Go ahead. On your way back to the Colosseum Metro stop have your picture taken with the centurions. I did . . . and it was fun. And once you've taken the metro back to your hotel, you discover you've had a pretty decent, entertaining, leisurely and educational day for the American equivalent of about $20.

Want to go back to the churches? See Moses? Mediate in the garden? Go. They are working churches, open to all. But put a little money in the poor box and say a kind word to the shy monks.

The Grandest Tour: Introduction

It's an experiment. . . . Maybe a cruel experiment. But then, we did find a volunteer.

Take an American man proficient in no language but English, get him a passport and a fat airplane ticket, send him off around the globe in a short amount of time to look at nine great cities and some of mankind's greatest, most enduring monuments--and at some smaller but no less important reminders of the past--then see what he sends back for Iplivecams.

Perhaps you've read about it, or maybe you remember it. In the early days of the U.S. space program--before the first American took a rocket ride--NASA sent up a chimpanzee. His name was Ham. John Stanchak is the founding editor of Historic Traveler. Right now, around the HT editorial office, he shares the same status as Ham. He's the subject of our great experiment--Historic Traveler's World Tour '96.

Our inspiration for the trip has very American roots--writer Mark Twain's 1867 grand tour of Europe and the Holy Land, the trip that inspired his non-fiction classic Innocents Abroad. Twain went overseas prepared with little more than background reading--not much less than we gave Stanchak for his late-twentieth-century "once around the park" odyssey. We are, however, confident. For 20 years Stanchak has reported on historic sites in the United States and Canada and interviewed museum directors, restoration workers, curators, old prospectors, antiques experts, veterans of old wars, technology pioneers and a lot of average people who just happened to be eyewitnesses to great historical events.

Now he's being put to the test; with an itinerary taking him to Rome, Paris, London, Delhi, Agra, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Macau and San Francisco. For HT's spot on Iplivecams, he's reporting about what it's like today to visit imperial Roman sites, classic Parisian stops, the Taj Mahal and spots experts claim are anywhere from 4,500 to 1,000 years old--places each country's tourism board says are worth seeing. These are locales we believe hard-core Historic Travelers want to know more about, and where they can expect some cultural adventure along with a hands-on history lesson.

Share:


Other Travel Tips: